Friday, May 1, 2009

May Day 2009 -- Polarization on the day of the worker

May Day is traditionally the occasion for mass demonstrations, celebrations, marches and protests throughout much of the world. With the on-going reconfiguration of the global economic order and many central states using public funds to bailout financial institutions deemed ‘too big to fail,’ the stakes and emotions around today’s international day of the worker are as high as ever.

Al-Jazeera reports that throughout the world, tens of thousands of protesters have taken to the street, with significant clashes taking place between demonstrators and police in Germany, Turkey and Greece. In Moscow, many groups marched under the hammer and sickle, calling for a return to communism after the kleptocracy that has defined Russian political economy since the Yeltsin Years.

Venezuela has of course been no exception. The country that has for many reintroduced the question and reinvention of socialism has not been without May Day mobilizations, many of which exemplify the intense political and social divisions within the larger Bolivarian process.

Throughout the country, the Chávez government has sponsored a series of marches and rallies, highlighting the ways in which the still-developing Bolivarian Socialist model has been able to avoid some of the most injurious effects of the global recession through its flotilla of social programs and government-sponsored employment initiatives.

In Caracas (opposition) metropolitan mayor Antonio Ledezma encouraged a legal rally in a park in the capital to continue onward to the National Assembly, at which point white T-shirted youths clashed with a police cordon. (Authorities were concerned that the opposition rally would run into another sanctioned but pro-government rally. Given the intensely polarized nature of Venezuelan politics today, the government often tries to keep pro- and anti-government protesters separated in order to avoid repeats of, for example, violent clashes between students campaigning for and against the constitutional referendum in late 2007).

These clashes (still developing as I write) highlight the high-stakes politics and precedents of public rallies in Caracas and throughout Venezuela. In 2002, an opposition rally and march protesting the sacking of several PDVSA (the state oil company) officials was encouraged to extend their route to Miraflores, the presidential palace, in violation of their parade permits. In the (as it turns out, carefully orchestrated between the then Acción Democratica dominated official trade union, the private media, the national chamber of commerce – FEDECÁMERAS – and elements of the military high command) chaos that ensued, a crisis was precipitated that served as the justification of a military coup.

This strategy aimed at creating crises has become a stand-by for the Venezuelan opposition, and since 2007, a well-trained ‘student movement’ has often emerged as the vanguard of violent clashes against police and Chávez supporters. In one recent and illuminating example from the lead-up to the February 15th referendum on term limits for elected officials, anti-government students attempted to start a forest fire in El Ávila, the national park that borders the city of Caracas to the north.

These sorts of destabilizing tactics on the part of the Venezuelan opposition are intended perhaps more than anything for its own internal audience. By forcing the hand of the state to ‘repress’ them, they produce an image that gives them the moral righteousness of perceived victimhood. For most Venezuelans, however, their actions take on the appearance of the extremism and desperation of an upper class being dispossessed. The net result is thus the further entrenchment of the antagonism and polarization that defines Venezuelan politics.

If only…

However, it is also important to keep in mind that the Venezuelan opposition is a spent force, politically. Outside of the ranks of the upper and upper-middle class, they lack any sort of constituency, due in no small part to their utter lack of a coherent vision for how to take Venezuela forward. Much touted electoral victories in the local and regional elections of November 2008 were the result not of the opposition’s ability to convert Chavistas, but were caused rather by widespread discontent with some of the candidates presented by the PSUV (Juan Barreto, former mayor of the municipality of Caracas who is now under investigation for corruption, being a prime case in point).

The more interesting and important division in Venezuela, the one that will actually impact the future direction of the Bolivarian Revolution, is that within the ranks of Chavismo. This division, which I and many others have identified as between radicals at the base – who tend to be less accomodationist toward the opposition, leery of representative government, and less ambiguously in favor of socialism – and members of the ‘internal rightwing’ is playing out this May Day as well.

In Aragua, members of the National Workers’ Union (UNT) and the United, Revolutionary, Classist and Autonomist Movement (C-CURA) are holding a May Day march in the city of Maracay “independent of the bosses and the government.” The march, in addition to supporting worker-controlled factories and calling for a reassessment of the government’s recently announced anti-crisis plan (which they, as well as Marea Socialista, a radical current within the PSUV, contend is a Bolivarian version of a bailout for the wealthy), is being held in solidarity with public sector workers currently renegotiating their contracts.

The march is also intended to call attention to intensifying conflicts between workers and bosses in Venezuela, most specifically in this rally’s case the as-yet unsolved assassination of three labor organizers in late November of last year.

In their May Day statement, Marea Socialista argues that “this crisis is not just a crisis of the global capitalist system, it is also an enormous opportunity to push forward in the fight for the only alternative model to capitalism that we know, socialism.”

The continue that this, the third phase of the Bolivarian Revolution (the first being the period between the caracazo of 1989 and Chávez’s election in 1998, the second being the period between the ratification of the constitution of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela and the passing of the constitutional amendment abolishing term limits this past February) has still been one in which the oligarchy “continues to enjoy intolerable profits,” and that their fight, the fight for socialism is “class war,” or the still lacking consolidation of worker-control in production, the unity of unions in this struggle, and the overcoming of bureaucratic roadblocks on the path to Socialism.

There are then, two types of struggle in Venezuela today. The first is that of the opposition against the government, which is increasingly taking the path of the guarimba -- a series of violent protests orchestrated by the opposition in order to destabilize the state -- and almost always covered with a sympathetic eye by the media in the United States and Europe. The second is the struggle within the Bolivarian Revolution.

This second struggle, between radicals and the 'forces of order' within the state and the PSUV shows little sign of slowing down. Nor, given the electoral inroads made by the opposition in last November's elections and the intransigence of figures such as Ledezma, does the first. While in other circumstances economic policies of the government in response to the crisis (an increase in the added value tax, being the most contentious example) might threaten to further fragment the pro-government bloc -- numerous parties, PODEMOS being the most recent, have jumped from the government's coalition due to the personal ambitions of their leadership -- the spectacular actions of the opposition only serve to reinforce the need for unity within the Bolivarian Revolution.

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