Venezuelan Elections, Participation, and the Finger
“Real democracy is when people participate in decision making, democracy today is manipulated consent” – Erich Fromm, paraphrased.
El dedo – the (pointer) finger, is a Venezuelan idiom which refers to high up authorities appointing ministers, managers, and election candidates, rather than consulting with or having those positions elected by the particular sector that corresponds to them.
We’ve seen a lot of use of the finger lately, particular in the cases of the worker and state run Industrias Diana and the CVG factories, where managers were appointed by ministers rather than workers, and also in the recent selection of PSUV-GPP candidates for the December mayoral elections.
The strange thing about the mayoral elections is that many PSUV candidates had already been nominated in a primary election process. When they were later chosen from above, many Venezuelan and international supporters of the Bolivarian revolution were left wondering what had happened.
PSUV assemblies were held from 23 February to begin the primary election process. The assemblies chose nominations for the primaries, which were to be held on 7 April, and the actual mayoral elections were scheduled for July. Rather than any PSUV members being able to participate (many of which are actually opposition supporters or inactive), a list was published online of those eligible to vote; namely those who had been active in the last two election campaigns. Each assembly decided on three nominations, which were then registered on the PSUV website, and those assemblies were still being held when Chavez died on 5 March. New presidential elections had to be called, the mayoral elections, it was eventually announced, were postponed until December, and in early June PSUV leaders announced that the primaries wouldn’t happen.
Instead, candidates were chosen by the PSUV national and regional leadership, with some limited consultation with the Great Patriotic Pole (GPP) - meaning with the PPT and PCV. Information from PSUV officials regarding the process was limited, and the candidate list was announced earlier this month.
In Merida, the governor Alexis Ramirez (who was also chosen by finger by the national executive) chose one of his workers, and allegedly also his girlfriend, Maria Castillo, to be the candidate for the city of Merida – a seat won by government supporters in the past, but currently held by the opposition. PSUV, JPSUV (youth), and revolutionaries in Merida responded with surprise and anger – both at the lack of consultation, and because no one in this small city had ever heard of her. JPSUV activists, who organise most of the PSUV cultural type events, told me they suspected the nomination was made in order to “keep campaign funds in the family”, but said because they would find it hard to campaign for such a candidate, they would focus their efforts instead on campaigning against the opposition candidate (Carlos Garcia, a Capriles copy).
The campaign for Castillo has already begun, with other PSUV officials promoting her on the basis that she is “a woman” (without mentioning a single way she would support women’s rights). The policies she has announced of improving rubbish collection and supporting motorbike taxi drivers come across as very moderate, and not that different to what the opposition is falsely promising to do. (So far the opposition has promised recycling, which is a joke given that the current mayor hasn’t collected rubbish at all, leaving Merida’s streets overflowing with piles of rubbish, and to “consult with the communities because they know what they need”). Ramirez visited my barrio of Santa Anita on Sunday, together with a team of PSUV activists and locals, and paid house visits. His supporters wore pink or light blue t-shirts with his name on them and the slogan “loyalty always” in large lettering on the front. Unfortunately, the slogan refers to members’ loyalty towards the finger chosen candidates, rather than loyalty of authorities to the people.
Why the government argues that use of the finger was necessary
Chavez’s passing led to some people feeling that the PSUV was more vulnerable to internal divisions, as well as to an offensive by the opposition. On 16 August, in a meeting with the 335 mayoral candidates for the PSUV and its allies, Maduro said that, “If we had gone to a process of primary elections, how do you think we’d be now? I have an opinion, we would have ended up divided into three, four, and five pieces.”
He argued that holding primaries would have involved the “permanent threat of individualist passions of some people who aspire to hold public positions with suspicious enthusiasm”.
“The unitary method of evaluation, consultation, and decision... allowed for the union of government forces, as it guarantees the main objective: union of revolutionary, political, and social forces in every municipality of the country,” he said, stating that primaries won’t be held by the PSUV and GPP while “the bourgeoisie culture of carnivalesque democracies prevails”. One day, when socialism is consolidated in Venezuela, he said there will be a “new ethic and political culture, with a new electoral system, a new public and socialist system of elections that represent the exercising of autonomy, authority, and popular sovereignty”.
Another reason why the government has chosen the finger, I think, is related to the alleged plots against it by the opposition and its buddies in the US and Colombia. It’s hard to be sure whether or not there is a plan to try to assassinate Maduro, as he alleges, but the finger method means having some control over who gets into authority positions and preventing infiltration.
Problems with the finger method
The method used to choose candidates, as well as the profiles of some of those candidates- well known ministers such as Villegas and Dante Rivas, and some sports and media figures – reflects a lack of confidence in being able to find competent political activists, and in the ability of the grassroots to choose their own candidates. Assuming that a candidate will get more votes because they are well known, or because they are “a woman” and so on, underestimates just how politically astute Venezuelans have become over the last 14 years.
The main thing wrong with the method though is it puts short term goals (keep the opposition out) before long term goals of structural political change and developing a population that is politically conscious and competent. Participation in its various forms- primaries, but also debate, discussion, PSUV base membership self organisation (as well as other forms not taken up in this article: communal councils, worker self management etc) is what teaches the people to be able to organise themselves in order to transform society. It is precisely participation in decision making that will take Venezuela towards the sort of political world Maduro was envisioning when he referred to a “new political culture”. At the meeting Maduro told the mayors that once elected, he wants them to be the “eyes and hands” of the Bolivarian revolution in the municipalities, and help with the “efficient development” of the street government method, yet it is candidates chosen by the people, rather than those selected on the basis of amiguismo (friends) or clientalism, who would do that best.
Thirdly, and this has happened many times before with elections, there is that notion of “loyalty”, where PSUV activists feel that they can’t criticise the candidate choices, and must accept whoever is imposed. The truth is, many PSUV members and other revolutionaries reject such impositions, but many also accept them, with around 300 rallying on Sunday in the small town of Ejido, Merida, for the candidate Rodolfo Zerpa, chosen by Ramirez, and different to the one with the most support from PSUV activists in the area during the primaries. Nevertheless, the discontent is significant, and will no doubt be reflected in a large abstention rate in the December elections. Hence, even the short term justification for the use of the finger isn’t necessarily justified.
Imposing candidates on the PSUV bases and demanding loyalty effectively depoliticises discussion (in assemblies and in the media), or takes politics down a number of notches, reducing it to the overly simplistic “Chavistas v the opposition”, when elections could be used to go so much deeper than that. Impositions compromise the gains we’ve made over the last 14 years, they are a step back from the awakening of the people, the visibilising of those excluded from active participation in society and politics, of communities solving their own problems, nationalisations and worker control. Further, the antidote to the key problems in Venezuela generally and in the Bolivarian revolution (bureaucracy, corruption, crime, opportunism, cliques and clientalism), is precisely increased empowerment, organisation, and participation in decision making. Only open, real, and inclusive debate (as opposed to forums where the governor gives a fluffy speech and everyone claps) can make those issues naked and unacceptable. Even if a few mayoral seats are lost because of it, such political participation is worth it.
Maduro is right about one thing, we need to go beyond the “carnival” type elections. That doesn’t mean that elections should stop being the joyous, calm days they are, but that electoral politics should have substance, content, depth. Less of the pretentious posters with a face, a heart, and the phrase “vote for x”, and more self criticism and development of cadre and leadership through creative and participatory methods.
Why is this happening in a revolution?
Why are we in a situation where the government wants to, and can, use imposition? It’s not as simple as “the PSUV sucks”, or as a few people have argued, “because it’s not a real revolution”. This is a revolution because millions of people are actively, daily, organising in order to fight many of the fundamental problems of society and replace them with something more human. However there are four key problems (or weaknesses or challenges) that allow for the overuse or unnecessary use of the dedo:
1. We the grassroots need to take a large proportion of the responsibility for the fact that the government isn’t feeling a lot of pressure from us. Imposing candidates, speaking in the name of the people or communities without actually consulting with them, has happened many times before, for years, and each time we complain amongst ourselves, articles are written, sometimes there’s a small protest, but not much more. The grassroots are tied up in their own projects- communal councils, collectives, media etc. The PSUV doesn’t convoke mass assembles where open debate can be had, but neither do other members of the grassroots (or occasionally we do, but with little success). Grassroots organisations are dispersed, working very hard in their particular spaces, but disorganised at national and state levels.
The PSUV is barely functioning as a mass, socialist, electoral party, let alone as a revolutionary organising tool. That though, is compared to our own standards here of what we desire of a party. Compared to tweedledum and tweedledee competing in Australia right now to be more racist than the other and more yawn inducing in their spin created daily trivial catchphrases in the lead up to Australia’s national elections though, the PSUV and its anti-imperialism, free social services, and imperfect street government policy looks like some sort of dream.
2. Capitalism (consumerism, private means of production, private media, exploitation, large landholders etc) still dominates in Venezuela. That means capitalist values of greed, leading to corruption, opportunism, and clientalism still prevail, and the media has a large influence.
3. Many of these capitalists or their buddies, and other opportunists have talked and wheedled their way into the government, state institutions, and the PSUV. Capitalists don’t mind what their party is called or what colour their t-shirt is, so long as they can keep making money, and this infiltration is reflected in PSUV policies like finger-ism. Of course many others in positions of power in the PSUV are also reformists, “light” socialists etc, which has a similar result.
4. The organised opposition – as ridiculous, pretentious, and manipulative as it is – has a sizeable number of supporters, and a strong hold on the private media and the economy. Having a strong opposition could play the useful role of keeping us on our toes, but instead what it means is that we are constantly putting our energy into defending the gains made so far and the power we have, at the expense of using that energy for advancing and deepening the revolution and promoting more and more community, worker, and grassroots control.
There are however, some examples of resistance to finger-ism. In the recent case of food minister Felix Osorio imposing a manger on the worker run Industrias Dianas, workers resisted for a month, while continuing production, and had a semi-victory.
When the PSUV announced its list, in Barlovento, Miranda state a thousand PSUV members resigned over the imposition of the candidate. “We’re not lacking respect, we’re not counter-revolutionaries, this is a popular rebellion. If the people, the bases, 17 out of 18 parties in the Patriotic Pole (GPP) said in an internal postulation process in Mamporal [in Buroz municipality, Miranda] that we want Ramon Gomez Serrano [as candidate] with 83% of the votes, why are they going to impose [Deivis] Caceres on us?” Celedonio Martinez, leader of a PSUV patrol branch said. Caceres is currently mayor, and Martinez accused him of having “kidnapped” or of controlling the PSUV leadership in the area.
“We’re faithful to the legacy of comandante Chavez and he taught us that the will of the people is respected, a party never overrides what the people have decided,” he said.
Likewise, small protests came from Trujillo and Maturin to the PSUV office in Caracas. In their case they claimed that some of those selected as candidates were corrupt, and asked the national executive to choose others. Further, the Communist Party (PCV) announced that there are some PSUV candidates that it won’t support for “moral and ethical” reasons, including those with “confirmed indications” of corruption, and will put up its own candidates or support alternative candidates in nine states.