One of the most important public debates over the future of Venezuela’s revolutionary process has opened up following the publication of a document by recently ousted planning minister Jorge Giordani. In it, Giordani launched a series of scathing criticisms on the “new path” he argues the government has taken since former president Hugo Chavez died in March 2013.
Giordani dropped the bombshell on June 18, a day after he was removed from the post he had held almost uninterruptedly since 1999. Many view Giordani as a principal architect of the Chavez government’s economic policy and representative of a more orthodox Marxist strand within cabinet. His removal has been pointed to as evidence of a widening rift within the Venezuelan government (see Venezuela: Pragmatists vs. radicals?).
Giordani’s letter has also had the effect of blasting the lid off a debate that until now had been largely simmering below the surface. Some hope that this discussion will feed into the upcoming congress of the governing United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV). Despite the fact that the party base will not elect almost half of all conference delegates, grassroots activists are organizing themselves to ensure that their presence is felt at the congress. Attempts however, by certain sectors within the party to silence dissent have cast serious doubts over the future of the party.
An increasingly public dispute among PSUV leaders has involved denunciations of creeping “Stalinism” within the government. Others have countered with accusations that every revolution “has had its Trotsky,” in reference to the historic dispute in the Russian revolution between Josef Stalin and Leon Trotsky following Lenin’s death. The clash was resolved, in no small way, through Stalin’s brutal suppression of debate, which included the exile and assassination of Trotsky himself.
In his letter titled “Testimony and responsibility in front of history”, Giordani, directly criticized what he perceived to be Maduro’s inability to project clear leadership, arguing this had generated the sensation of a “power vacuum”. He stated that government action had become increasingly marked by a lack of coordination and uncontrolled public spending. He also claimed that private business sectors had successfully prodded the Maduro government towards implementing economic reforms that “would facilitate [their] attempts to recapture oil wealth”.
At the same time, Giordani outlined some of recommendations he made while still in Maduro’s cabinet. These were focused on combating corruption and increasing control over public funding, but according to Giordani were largely ignored. The purpose of his letter, he wrote, was not simply to criticize, but to make public the fact that he had tried to put forward concrete proposals. He hoped the letter could help “revive” within the revolution “mechanisms for the confrontation of ideas and joint work, under a leadership respected by all.”
Giordani’s document provoked a flurry of responses. Many noted that while Giordani had been quick to point the fingers at others for the country’s economic problems, he seemed to absolve himself of all responsibility, despite having been a key figure in the government’s economic policy.
Former planning vice-minister Roland Denis argued that Giordani did not “take full responsibility for anything, wanting to blame it all on the failure of Maduro’s government and, above all, Maduro’s lack of leadership. [His] half truths will generate a lot of pain and anger inside [the government], but in the end he is not taking up the key issues, because the objective of this letter is to exonerate himself from all responsibility, when he has no excuse to do so.”
Rodolfo Sanz, a former Chavez minister and current PSUV mayor questioned the motivation behind Giordani’s very public criticism. “It is not unheard of,” he wrote, “for people who have held important responsibilities…. within the Bolivarian Revolution, to open fire against the process on leaving their post.” Far from being part of the “frank and constructive debate that must exist among true revolutionaries” Sanz accused Giordani of simply attacking those who continued to advance the revolution.
Maduro himself appeared to publicly question Giordani’s motivations during a televised cabinet meeting on June 19. Although he did not mention Giordani by name, many believe that his statement regarding disloyalty as akin to betrayal was a direct reference to the former minister. Some comrades, said Maduro, prefer to stay in the rearguard “and become chroniclers of failure,” rather than realize that “people are the heart of the revolution.” Defending his record in government, he said he had always acted in favor of the people, “not for the bourgeoisie or for technocrats who think they are superior to the humble folk.”
Others welcomed Giordani’s letter, even if they did not completely agree with its form or content. The Simon Bolivar Collective noted that despite their disagreement with Giordani’s general political outlook, he could not be labeled a traitor. They said his criticism was necessary, even if “mistimed.” PSUV members Toby Valderrama and Antonio Aponte, who for many years have published a widely read newspaper column, warned against dismissing Giordani’s accusations. “[When] a key cadre like Giordani raises an alert,” they wrote, “the Revolution, and above all its leadership, is obliged to reflect.”
A number of high profile PSUV leaders and former ministers also made calls to respect differences and for the government and party to deal with Giordani’s statements in a serious manner.
PSUV national executive member Freddy Bernal wrote an article on the popular pro-revolution website Aporrea noting that revolutionary unity required “criticism and self-criticism.” Debates, rather than divide the movement, helped to “tweak unity, correct the path in case of deviations and accelerate the march towards socialism.”
On June 24, former Chavez minister and PSUV national executive member Hector Navarro published a letter on Aporrea. Navarro used his letter to recall how Giordani had tried on several occasions to raise his concerns in private with both Maduro and the PSUV leadership. Having been met each time with silence, Navarro said, “what is a revolutionary’s responsibility once all avenues are taken to raise the alarm on problems that threaten the course of the revolution, and those that are responsible for listening and acting don’t listen? Can someone who acts like this truly be called a traitor?”
He also referred to the denunciation made by Giordani last year, that in 2012 some US$20 billion had been illegally acquired through the existing currency regime system, and asked, “Is Giordani the traitor….? Or are the traitors, even if no one talks about it, those who assigned dollars that today are needed by our hospitals, or are necessary to boost production and to meet the needs of the people?”
Later that same day, Aporrea published another letter by Navarro in which he revealed that had been called up to face the PSUV’s disciplinary tribunal. This provoked the ire of another former minister and PSUV national executive member, Ana Elisa Osorio, who tweeted “two of Chavez’s most loyal comrades suspended and called traitors. Something bad is happening in the PSUV.” Another former Chavez minister, Victor Alvarez, denounced the move as “pure and simple Stalinism.”
“What Stalin, or not Stalin?” responded Maduro at a June 25 public rally. Ratcheting up the heat on the debate, he made reference to “vacillating petty bourgeois” sectors and “disloyal ex-ministers who didn’t do things as they should have…. They are very inconsiderate these enemies of the left. History will judge them.”
Various other government and PSUV leaders made comments along a similar vein over the next few days. Speaking to an assembly of PSUV militants, the party’s First Vice President, Diosdado Cabello, criticized revolutionaries that “instead of using their energy to criticize the right, criticize President Nicolas Maduro…. Is criticism more important than loyalty?” He also warned that the party had rules “and we will make sure they are implemented.” PSUV governor Francisco Ameliach used his weekly radio program to argue, “We can’t let a few individuals generate fissures in our party.”
On the other hand, PSUV leader Freddy Bernal said that neither Navarro nor Giordani could be deemed to be traitors, and that both would be given an opportunity to express their viewpoints at a meeting with the PSUV leadership.
With discontent over the handling of the debate spreading through the party, Maduro used a June 30 speech to publicly extended an olive branch to those he had so harshly criticized just days before. Maduro said these differences with comrades who are “without a doubt revolutionaries and Chavistas” had to be dealt with in a manner that could facilitate a “reunification.” Later that day he asked everyone to “turn the page” on the saga of tit-for-tat letters and statements. “We have said everything we had to say…. Now, the hand is extended and the embrace is ready to be given to all comrades.”
However, as Navarro noted in a further open letter dated July 12, Maduro’s call for dialogue largely fell on deaf ears. No meeting to discuss the differences was called, the demand to face the disciplinary tribunal remained and “name-calling persists in speeches by some [PSUV] leaders.”
Navarro drew particular attention to statements by Ramon Rodriguez Chacin, the coordinator of the PSUV disciplinary tribunal. Chacin had publicly spoken about the affair, arguing that every revolution “has had its Trotsky.” Apart from questioning the right of the head of the tribunal to condemned him as guilty without a fair trial, Navarro asked: “If according to Rodriguez Chacin I am Trotsky, is he suggesting that Comrade Nicolas Maduro is a Stalin, thereby agreeing with the enemy?Furthermore, is Rodriguez Chacin suggesting for me a fate similar to Trotsky?”
Navarro drew attention to serious problems in the democratic functioning of the party. According to him, the PSUV national executive hardly met over the past year, and has essentially been replaced by a High Political Command composed of government ministers and top party officials. The party’s leadership bodies at almost all levels are not functioning, claimed Navarro, and “the [internal] spaces in which true collective discussions can be held about government and party-related problems are diminishing.”
Roberto Lopez Sanchez, a trade union leader and PSUV militant, raised similar concerns, when he wrote: “Today, more than 18 months after [the High Political Command] was created, we do not know if it is part of the state structure or if it is a ‘super-leadership’ over and above the PSUV national leadership.” He denounce the undemocratic nature of this unelected, seemingly “all-powerful” body, and said any deepening of the revolution was predicated on a return to the original, participatory spirit that Chavez had imbued in the process. A newly elected PSUV leadership should replace the unelected High Political Command, he argued.
With the PSUV’s third congress fast approaching it is evident that a fierce debate has opened up within the party, with for the first time, party leaders publicly taking opposing sides. Going beyond Stalin-Trotsky analogies, it appears that two positions have emerged.
While some have pointed to divisions between “radicals” and “pragmatists”, or “the grassroots” and “the bureaucracy”, it appears that the key division is between those who condemn public criticism as disloyalty to the leadership, and those that see peoples’ active participation and criticism as the heart of the revolutionary process. Pragmatists and radicals can be found on both sides of this debate; so too can party leaders and rank-and-file members.
The fact that almost half of congress floor will be comprised of unelected delegates who hold public posts (mayors, governors, parliamentarians, etc) will no doubt have a big impact on the outcome of the congress. PSUV leaders have also announced that a new party leadership will not be elected at this congress.
Both issues demonstrate how far the PSUV has drifted way from the original idea Chavez had for the party back in early 2007. In the speech where he first proposed creating a new party, Chavez blasted the idea of designating representatives from above. “This should all be done from below, from the base. The people should take these decisions, as has been written in our Constitution for seven years, except we haven’t done it. Now is the time to start.” He also argued for new faces and new leaderships, saying anything else “would be a deception.”
Importantly, Chavez argued that grassroots and participatory democracy was vital to ensuring that the party became “a political instrument at the service not of blocs or groupings but of the people and the Revolution, at the service of socialism.” The new party had to be different to the Russian Bolshevik party, which after Lenin’s death, “ended up as an anti-democratic party,” he said.
Rather than being a vehicle for uncritically implementing decisions made by an unelected leadership, a party like the one envisaged by Chavez would be a powerful instrument through which people could defend their class interests. Such a party would not only pose a threat to the capitalist class but also those who preferred to use positions of power for personal gain. It could prove a space for the people to take control over the destiny of the process.
While the PSUV never became the party Chavez wanted during his lifetime, the former leader demonstrated that he was able to use his authority to maintain unity among competing currents of opinion, while simultaneously encouraging greater grassroots empowerment. Maduro now faces a critical test as to whether he can follow the same path, and in the process help put the PSUV back on its original course.
[This is the second article of a two-part series dealing with the fall-out following Giordani’s sacking and subsequent open letter. The first “Venezuela: Pragmatists vs. radicals?” focused on the debate surrounding economic policy.]