New Left Alternative Scores Gains in Venezuelan Elections

By Daniel Hellinger

     A workers party rooted in a movement for democratic unionism
emerged from elections on December 5 as a major force within
Venezuelan politics. The showing of Causa R was overshadowed by
the victory of Rafael Caldera, supported by the Movement for
Socialism (MAS) and a variety of smaller parties, but the strong
showing by former steelworker Andrs Vel squez and Causa R's
capture of over one fifth of Congress may alter the political
landscape of Venezuelan even more profoundly.
     The results were a clear public repudiation of the monopoly
over Venezuelan politics exercised since 1973 by the two largest
parties, the Christian Democrats (COPEI) and Democratic Action
(AD). Vel squez, who gathered just two percent of the vote in
1988, received 22 percent according to official results, placing
him fourth behind Caldera with 30 percent. The candidates of the
establishment parties, Claudio Ferm!n of AD and Oswaldo Alv rez
Paz of COPEI were officially credited with 24 and 23 percent,
respectively. AD and COPEI will see their share of seats drop
from 80 percent to one half of each house.
     But there is reason to believe that the major parties saved
themselves more severe losses only through fraud. The first
partial results announced by the Supreme Electoral Council showed
Vel squez running a close second to Caldera. With each successive
announcement by the Supreme Electoral Council, which required two
days to complete its tabulations, his vote dropped, relegating
him to fourth place. Causa officials say an honest count would
net it approximately 70 deputies and establish it as the largest
force in Congress. The official results allocate only forty seats
to Causa R, leaving it with approximately one fifth of the seats
in each legislative chamber.
     Causa officials charge that delays in announcements of
official votes, a wide discrepancy between Vel squez's vote and
exit poll data, and abnormally high rates of abstention and
voided ballots in areas of Causa strength all point to fraud.
Sanitation workers in Caracas led party leaders to a landfill
ballots were found after the workers observed two army trucks
dumping a large number of bags and boxes. MAS and other parties
backing Caldera also claim to have been deprived of their fair
share of seats in Congress, charging that the military, AD, and
COPEI manipulated the vote to protect politicians threatened with
loss of lucrative sinecures in Congress and the state
     Caldera, an elder statesman with a reputation for honesty,
had bolted from COPEI, which he founded in 1946. Like Vel squez,
he sought votes from those wishing to repudiate corruption and
the orthodox structural adjustment policies implemented after
1989 under the administration of AD's Carlos Andrs Prez. Official
statistics estimate that nearly 40 percent of the population has
been plunged into "critical poverty," and a recent study by
UNICEF reports drastic increased in child mortality due to "the
deterioration of family income and of the economy" over the past
five years.
     Many voters fed up with corruption and the economic policies
of Prez may have opted for Caldera, a former president (1969-
1973) who founded COPEI in 1946, over Vel squez because he
represented a less uncertain leap into unknown waters and to
avoid a victory by Alv rez Paz, running second in many pre-
election polls, in the single round, winner-takes-all election.
The COPEI candidate staunchly defended the economic package
implemented by Prez under an agreement with the International
Monetary Fund in 1989.
     The campaign of Ferm!n and AD was burdened by public
revulsion toward Prez, whose troubled term was cut short in May
by a parliamentary maneuver similar to impeachment. Widespread
rioting erupt in February 1989 after Prez, who had won 52 percent
of the vote just three months earlier, announced his intention to
sign the agreement with the International Monetary Fund. In 1992,
nationalist officers in the military launched two failed coup
attempts against the unpopular president. Prez now faces a
possible trial on charges of corruption; his predecessor, Jaime
Lusinchi, also an adeco, faces similar charges.

A New Left Alternative

     Causa R originated in a project launched in the 1970s by a
group of former guerrillas, one of many leftist organizations
formed in the aftermath of an unsuccessful attempt to replicate
the Cuban revolutionary experience.  Its founder, the late
Alfreido Maneiro, had been involved briefly in the founding of
MAS, heretofore Venezuela's largest leftist party. Maneiro broke
from MAS because he perceived the crisis of the left to lie not
merely in failure of armed struggle, but in its adherence to a
sterile version of democratic centralism and vanguard politics.
     Maneiro's critique attracted little notice in 1972. The MAS
was already controversial for its adoption of the Eurocommunist
notion that the path to state power was through the conquest of
civil society. The MAS intended to contest AD and COPEI for
hegemony in the unions, professional associations, student
groups, neighborhood associations and dozens of other sectors in
which the parties have customarily run slates of candidates
against one another, a strategy with ample precedents for success
in Venezuela.
     Upon returning to Venezuela after the death of dictator Juan
Vicente G"mez death in 1935, R"mulo Betancourt (who had serve for
a time as editor of the communist newspaper in Costa Rica) and
other middle class leaders had applied lessons learned in exile
to organizing a party (formally constituted as AD in 1941) to
mobilized support from the working class and peasantry to wrest
power from conservatives. Their goal was to press the oil
companies for a larger share of the fabulous profits in order to
modernize the country, which G"mez and his circle had run like a
feudal fief.
     Once in power -- first between 1945 and 1948, and then from
1958 to 1968 -- the highly centralized party apparatus of AD
became progressively less democratic, but discontent was muted by
the dramatic transformation of the country from a rural backwater
into a hemispheric pole of development and magnet for
immigration. This strategy was popularly known as "sowing the
petroleum," and though its underlying weakness would be exposed
by the collapse of oil prices after 1981, it permitted populist
politics in Venezuela to survive the onslaught of military coups
that afflicted the rest of the continent (with few exceptions)
between 1964 and 1980.
     After the overthrow of the last military dictatorship in
1958, leftist youth, frustrated by Betancourt's purge of their
ranks from AD and the exclusion of the Communist Party from the
series of pacts which established the new regime, answered the
siren call of the Cuban model and undertook a disastrous
insurrection. Upon its return to legality (mostly during
Caldera's earlier presidency), the left attempted to shift its
strategy from armed to electoral struggle. This seemed
particularly appropriate for a country where associational life
has been closely linked to partisan politics since 1935. However,
MAS and other leftist parties found it difficult to challenge the
huge patronage apparatus made possible by the flow of oil rents
into the state. Worse, they were often co-opted and corrupted by
it themselves.
     After 1958, COPEI became a co-partner -- an opposition
capable of winning elections but sharing a similar internal
organization and relationship to groups in civil society. The
Venezuelan political system came to resemble the Mexican system,
with a major variation: Two parties, AD and COPEI rather than one
exercised hegemony over civil society, allocating smaller
portions of influence to others, including MAS.
Struggles for Union Democracy
     While MAS and other left parties continued envision
themselves an intellectual vanguard of the working class, in 1973
Maneiro founded the Causa R (Radical Cause), a small group which
emphasized participation and worker democracy. Maneiro chose to
experiment first in Ciudad Guayana, a new industrial zone where
Prez, during his first administration of 1974 to 1978, spent
billions of petro-dollars (and borrowed liberally against future
oil earnings when funds to continue the project were running dry)
in an overnight effort to created a modern metallurgical industry
in a region endowed with great mineral and energy resources.
     In a country where many labor leaders were corrupt, the
leadership in Guayana seemed particularly crass and greedy,
closely linked to the corrupt political managers of the huge
state sector. In contrast to other parts of the country, the
unions in Guayana had little historical connection to the decades
of struggle to establish electoral democracy. Only a few thousand
people populated the area in the 1950s; now there are several
hundred thousand workers. Many of these workers were highly
skilled, but almost all shared poor living and working in poor
     By 1979, Maneiro's group had become a movement, Matancero,
taking its name from the industrial district of Matanzas.
Matancero shocked AD by wresting control of the steel workers
union, largest in the country, behind the leadership of a young
electrician, Andrs Vel squez. In 1981, the national Confederation
of Venezuelan Workers (CTV), dominated by AD, purged the elected
leadership and arranged for Vel squez and others to be fired, at
the same time providing a carrot to the union membership in the
form of a significant wage increase.  To the CTV's amazement the
workers simply elected a new slate of Matancero leaders.
     Vel squez emerged as the leader of Causa R after the death
of Maneiro in 1982, as the party moved outward from union
politics into the wider municipal arena. In 1989, he was elected
governor of the state of Bol!var and was reelected in 1992 with
over 70 percent of the vote. The party's success could be
attributed in part to the links forged labor struggles with
emerging social movements -- Catholic base communities,
neighborhood associations, cooperatives, women's groups,
environmentalists, etc.
     In office, Causa R also began to attract support from the
middle class for its honest stewardship over social and economic
services whose function had become more vital as neoliberal
economic policies, the debt, and declining oil prices ravaged the
standard of living. The Causa even attracted some business
support by breaking the system which restricted government
contracts to a few cronies of the party apparatus.
     Except for a few barrios in the capital, Caracas, the Causa
had little organizational base outside of Bol!var in the 1980s,
but the experiment in the state caused many in a notoriously
jaded and cynical populace to take the party more seriously. A
stunning victory by the Causa candidate in the elections for
Caracas mayor and city council in December 1992 suggested it
would be a force in the 1993 elections, but few could have
expected its growth to have been so explosive.
Problems and Prospects
     In many respects the Causa R resembles the Workers Party
(PT) of Brazil, although it was founded several years before its
more celebrated counterpart. The emergence of the PT, Causa R,
and in the Democratic Revolutionary Party of Cuauhtmoc C rdenas
in Mexico have in common a commitment to develop solutions to
problems not through preconceived formulas expressed in
manifestos and official programs, but through the participation
of large numbers of people in different social arenas. The role
of the party in such a process is to serve an umbrella respectful
of the autonomy of organizations in civil society.
     In the larger and more industrialized countries of South
America, the impetus for this development has been strongly tied
to democratic reform of unions because the labor movement has
been historically most subordinated to the party system. In
Brazil and Venezuela, the political party emerging from worker
struggles subsequently extended itself out, recruiting into its
ranks leaders from other social movements. This experience
enriched their internal democratic processes and expanded the
conception of who constitutes the working class in capitalist
     Although widespread reports in the media have described
Causa R as non-ideological or "moderately leftist," in fact it
has advanced a responsible alternative based upon a wide-ranging
consultation with intellectuals and popular participation. Far
from lacking a program, the party has presented an outline for
government, "A Political Project for a New Venezuela," calling
for an accelerated and urgent process of rectification" based on
two fundamental propositions, "a radical cultural transformation"
and "a productive revolution."
     The radical cultural transformation includes democratic
urban planning, democratization of the communications system,
overhaul of the education system, and full disclosure laws for
public officials, among many other propositions. The "productive
revolution" would reorient policy toward oil toward treating it
as an industry capable of leading development rather than as a
source of capital, which the party considers the legacy of a
"rentist" mentality. The party would re-orient state investments
toward small and medium industries and agriculture.
     Far from a return to populism, the oil policy promoted by
the Causa represents a radical break from traditional populism.
The politically popular position in Venezuela is to advocate no
increase in domestic fuel prices, just the opposite of the
neoliberal position embodied in the agreement signed by Prez with
the IMF, which calls for prices to be raised to international
levels. The former, says Causa R, is typical of a "rentist"
mentality; the latter would amount to renunciation of the
country's principal comparative natural advantage. The Causa
position is that domestic prices should be fixed at the cost of
production plus the average rate of profit for industry.

New Challenges

     Causa R is likely to confront a new set of challenges
associated with gaining a share of state power. How can it ensure
the accountability of elected officials to citizens and weed out
opportunists who have joined mere to further their careers? Can
new party members and successful candidates be incorporated into
the decision-making process of the party within a structure that
allows for internal governance without depriving the party of its
very appeal as a movement? Will the small group of dedicated
organizers who launched the Causa project originally be capable
of cooperating, perhaps even stepping aside, as new leadership
emerges from party ranks?
     The Brazilian PT has heretofore met these challenges by
allowing the formation of tendencies within its ranks within
agreed-upon guidelines, by promoting vigorous debate about party
directions in party sponsored publications, and by encouraging
the founding of "nuclei", grassroots clubs founded to provided
forums of debates and engagement of citizens with elected
officials. The Causa so far seems to be relying upon the
formation of task forces in different sectors and at different
levels to develop programs and select candidates, but this
process has been informal and spontaneous for the most part.
     The party must also manage delicate relations with the
military. It has attracted support from some middle ranking
officers who were involved in attempts to overthrow the Prez
government in 1992 but now claim to renounce violence as a means
of change. This has produced tensions between Causa R and the
high command, which is deeply implicated in several corruption
scandals itself and fears divisions within its ranks. If Caldera
faces resistance in Congress or if the situation becomes unstable
again, the high command may be tempted to join the new president
in a "constitutional coup," or it might decide to move decisively
and ruthlessly to seize control on its own.
     The Causa must also find a way to conduct itself as a party
with a quota of power without appearing to be merely playing the
game repudiated in the recent elections. For example, by
complaining loudly and by organizing popular protests in response
to evidence of fraud the party has been vulnerable to charges
that it is disturbing the political scene for its own narrow
purposes. A television reporter asked the mayor of the
municipality of Caron! whether the noisy Causa protests were not
unsettling to a country looking for social peace. The mayor,
Clemente Scotto, responded, "Se$orita, do you think peace with
corruption is going to cure our troubles?"
     The surge in support for the Causa should be placed in a
context of a number of encouraging electoral results in Italy,
New Zealand, Germany and other parts of the world. The collapse
of Soviet communism has demonstrated the folly of a socialist
society lacking an autonomous civil society, but the rapacious
system being constructed in its place has given pause to those
who fervently wished its demise. The common factors in these
advances seem to be popular revulsion at the greed and corruption
associated with the unbridled capitalism and the realization by
many on the left that participatory democracy, not an immediate
leap into statist socialism is the logical option to be place
before such a public.
     In Latin America these international ideological forces are
given further force by the crisis of Cuban communism -- a crisis
that can largely be attributed to the economic blockade
orchestrated by the United States, but nonetheless a clear
demonstration that socialist movements must somehow cope with the
reality that the world economic system remains capitalist. Still
fresh in the minds of the Latin American left are the defeats of
elected, radical regimes in Guatemala (1954), Chile (1973),
Grenada (1981), and Nicaragua (1990). The question is not simply
how to defend oneself against U.S. intervention (a major, if not
deciding factor in all of these defeats), but how to rectify
those political weaknesses that have made revolutionary regimes
vulnerable to counter-revolution.

     Daniel Hellinger is author of Venezuela: Tarnished Democracy
(1991}, a general survey of Venezuelan politics and history which
keeps oil at the center of the analysis. Though predating the
coup attempts of 1992 and subsequent removal of Prez from office,
the book provides insights into the popular backlash against the
corruption and economic crisis which emerged in the 1980s,
including detail on the emergence of Causa R and Vel squez in
Guayana. It is available from Westview Press.