Political Parties and Social Change


Since Hugo Chávez of Venezuela proposed the dissolution of the 24 parties that support his government and the formation of a single party on December 15, 2007, there has been much debate among the parties involved. According to Chávez, the proposed United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) would unite all of his supporters under one banner in order to combat party sectarianism, infighting, and corruption. 13 of these parties, including prominent parties such as Chávez’s own Fifth Republic Movement (MVR), agreed to the incorporation. Others, such as the Communist Party of Venezuela (PCV), We Can (PODEMOS), and Fatherland for All (PPT), asked for more time to debate the proposal and consider it at upcoming party congresses. 

Outside of the political parties, there has also been difference of opinion about Chávez’s declaration. Some intellectuals have criticized what they see as the arrogant manner in which Chávez made his announcement about the new party, instead of putting it up for debate. Some leaders of community organizations have supported the new initiative while others are against the idea. Clearly, questions about plurality and participation are in play here. But what is also at stake is the actual role and relevance of the party structure within movements for social change across the region. Chávez’s MVR has proven to have far less popular support than was held in previous eras by the Communist Party in Cuba, the Sandinistas in Nicaragua or the FMLN in El Salvador. Are political parties even relevant in the context of contemporary Latin America?

The debt crisis of the 1980s weakened the traditional political parties and labor institutions at the base of nationalist development models, such as that associated with Import Substitution Industrialization (ISI). In subsequent reforms carried out by the Venezuelan state, the centralized party structure was further dismantled. In 1984, president Jaime Lusinchi created the Presidential Commission for Reform of the State (COPRE), which recommended internal party reform; a uninominal electoral system, where voters select candidates individually as compared with the previous system of closed lists in elections; the direct election of  governors and mayors; judicial reform; and a transference of powers from the central government to regional and municipal levels. These proposals were initially defeated in Congress, but finally in 1988 the national legislature approved the direct election of mayors, the approval of a mixed-member electoral system, and a law for fiscal and administrative decentralization.  Yet these reforms were limited, as national party elites retained a high degree of control over the process of decentralization.

The mid to early nineties was a period of crisis and instability. Following the street riots of 1989, known as the Caracazo, traditional political parties were further discredited, as new sources of popular power emerged. Coinciding with growing social activism in the barrios during the early 1990s, Chávez organized a clandestine radical grouping within the military known as the Movimiento Bolivariano Revolucionario 200 (MBR-200) and in February and November 1992 he led two coups. In December 1998, Chávez was elected president, backed by a governing coalition of parties known as the Patriotic Front, which was led by the MVR. From the start there were rivalries and infighting between pro-Chávez parties, and it was clear that their support in the polls was derived mostly from their association with the charismatic leadership of Chávez.

During the November 2006 election campaign when supporters of Chávez mobilized to have him re-elected on December 3, there was a growing criticism of the role played by the pro-Chávez parties, particularly among popular sectors. These parties were accused of bureaucracy and corruption by popular sectors, they engaged in clientilism, they lacked internal mechanisms of democracy, and they failed to collaborate across sectarian lines. Party militants were unable to develop a meaningful relationship with ordinary people because they are not themselves engaged in community work. As one observer noted, the political parties hold their assemblies in the conference rooms of exclusive hotels and not in the barrio, the factory, or the open plaza.

The recent elections bore many similarities to the 2004 recall referendum, when people mobilized to defeat a proposal by the opposition to oust Chávez from power. While the MVR failed to organize people in the barrios, the driving force behind the pro-Chávez campaign came from organized community activists, who launched an aggressive campaign to register and mobilize voters to vote in the referendum. Similarly, during the December 2006 elections, community organizations produced their own election propaganda, held assemblies, and campaigned outside of the political parties. In some popular sectors such as La Vega, parties were so consumed with infighting and sectarianism that they alienated most ordinary people. The election campaign, like the referendum, was successful largely due to the efforts of community organizations, while political parties stayed on the margins. Some argue that the top leadership witnessed this growing alienation of the people from political parties and Chávez’s declaration of a united party was one means to limit the sectarianism and infighting of the parties.

The declaration of the united party must also be seen in the context of other decisions made in the aftermath of the elections, where Chávez won with 63 percent of the vote. Chávez spoke about devolving more power to the communal councils, as local neighborhood organizations of 200 – 400 families. Since he made the announcement in February 2006 to allocate greater funds to the communal councils, residents of Caracas have been meeting in assemblies to discuss the formation of their own communal councils and organizing small working groups. The formation of communal councils seems to counter the idea that Venezuela is moving towards greater centralization and concentration of power in the figure of Chávez. Rather, the emphasis seems to be on creating self-sustaining units of popular power that articulate with the state through a restructured party that is more in touch with the grass roots.

But some community groups have been critical of the idea of the united party. One organizer in La Vega saw the unification of all parties under one banner as a way for elites to further consolidate their power within the revolution, and this would provide an even bigger obstacle for popular movements to advance their agenda. It is not the idea of a united party that is problematic, but rather the way in which this party is being constructed: by presidential mandate from the top down, and from the cadre of bureaucratic and corrupt parties rather than from community activists.

One model of a party that seems to have greater resonance among Venezuelan community activists is the Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) party in Bolivia. MAS is a grouping of the traditional left, and popular and indigenous Bolivians, including workers, peasants, lowland and highland indigenous groups, and social movements such as the Movement of the Landless. MAS mobilized coalitions of these groups in successful national protests against privatizations of natural resources, and during the rewriting of the hydrocarbons law. In March 2005, MAS organized strikes and blockades along with other groups, forcing the president Carlos Mesa to resign. They successfully campaigned during December 2005 to elect indigenous leader Evo Morales as president. MAS activists sought to build the party from the bottom up through involvement in concrete struggles. They utilized the party form as a way of building coalitions, as an electoral vehicle, and as a means for institutional intervention.

Given the endemic problems and elitism of Venezuelan political parties, it seems that it would be hard to reform them into a new party along the lines of Bolivia’s MAS. Rather, what the organizer from La Vega suggested was that social movements can build a base through the Communal Councils and use this to counter the dominance of the parties.

Debates about the role of political parties in movements for social change are not limited to Venezuela. In an earlier era of mass politics, parties and trade unions were able to reach and represent large constituencies, they had an impact on policy making at various levels, and they were able to build national and international alliances to support workers’ struggles. But over time, many of these structures have become rigid and unresponsive to the demands of their constituencies. Given the greater informalization of the workforce; the growing importance of ethnicity, race, and gender; and the shift away from the factory to the barrio as the site for organizing, political parties and trade unions have proven to be outdated and inflexible. Their hierarchy and centralism contrasts with the more democratic methods of popular assembly being employed in popular neighborhoods. No wonder then that the most innovative forms of struggle are emerging not through political parties but in such forms as community radio, community-based labor organizations, neighborhood assemblies and recuperated factories.

Building new means of institutional pressure, coalitions, and a new interface between popular organizations and the state is no easy task. Ultimately it matters less whether it takes the form of a united party or a Bolivia-like MAS and depends more on the balance of forces willing to organize people at the base to exercise democratic control over their communities, and to build local and national linkages from the ground up.

Sujatha Fernandes: [email protected]

 

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