At first glance, last weekend’s demolition of the parliamentary United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) is a victory for conservatives and reactionaries fighting Hugo Chavez’s revolutionary legacy. Painting this election as an ideological struggle between left and right does, however, risk painting over a million complexities with the same broad brush. Progressives care about changing existing structures to prevent them from further harming the people at the bottom. And that is why progressives, as well as conservatives, should be pleased with the devastating electoral toll being taken on PSUV.
At the December parliamentary elections, the ruling PSUV was devastated in the National Assembly. The opposition coalition Democratic Unity Roundtable won two thirds of the Assembly’s 167 seats, removing the PSUV’s majority for the first time since 1999. Pundits have been calling it a revocation of public support for Chavismo and PSUV’s brand of socialism. The days of popular support for Chavez’s colossal social spending on the back of oil revenues are seemingly behind us.
Chavismo is an ideology built by Venezuela’s former president Hugo Chavez which revolves around Latin American solidarity and opposition to globalisation and neoliberalism. At risk of simplifying what is a complex response to what many Latin Americans see as the West’s imperial interference in Latin America, it is an ideology that puts social goals ahead of material ones. While education and healthcare are free and universal, the Party’s authoritarian characteristics and economic mismanagement have meant the human rights situation is more uneven than its social programs would suggest. Political rights are trampled, as prominent opposition figures have often been jailed or killed in mysterious circumstances, and the PSUV has extended its reach through supposedly impartial government branches like the National Electoral Council.
Chavez and his successor, Nicolás Maduro, have spent huge amounts of oil wealth on lavish social programs, promising great things to the poor and the workers. With rhetoric of poverty reduction and social justice, oil money went to fund a huge consumption boom instead of any long-term economic plan to make sure the good days stayed good. As economist Paul Collier has written, resource booms in poor countries do not tend to have the same effects as in rich countries. Lower income countries like Venezuela that rely heavily on oil exports (around 96 percent of their export earnings are from oil) often ride the income boost but don’t have the established financial infrastructure to funnel those earnings into sectors that can keep the expansion going. In an extreme contrast, Norway’s oil income is largely bundled up in its sovereign wealth fund, the largest in the world, which invests in other areas of the economy. Meanwhile, Venezuela’s oil income goes to paying its debts and consumption goods to keep support for the chavistas high.
While the socialist leanings of the PSUV have meant high literacy rates and huge spending on public housing, this lack of long-term thinking by the PSUV has put the people of Venezuela on the back foot. With stagnant production, declining food output since 1990, rampant inflation, price controls, weak private property protection, and flimsy political rights, the opposition in Venezuela has had plenty to criticise but now faces the prospect of having to work with the PSUV to solve this patchwork of problems. While they control the parliament, every other branch of the Venezuelan Government remains firmly within the PSUV’s control.
Although he called the elections a “triumph” for democracy, Maduro has indicated an unwillingness to accept responsibility, blaming the election result on shadowy capitalist forces and “counterrevolutionaries”. Venezuela’s deep ideological divides between left and right and history of pervasive revolutionary rhetoric make creating a culture of level headed economic management all the more unlikely. Finding a way to diversify exports, grow business confidence and move towards food security will be made all the more difficult by this divisive political culture. Constitutional processes mean there are a plethora of backdoors and obscure rules that the PSUV has used in the past to trap in-house dissent before it spreads, so expanding control to other branches should be high on the opposition’s list of priorities.