Amidst Calls for Self-Criticism, Venezuela’s Socialist Party Approaches its Fourth Congress

Hugo Pérez Hernáiz and David Smilde

The IV Congress of the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) will convene in Caracas from July 28 to 30, in a context in which it holds power unopposed, but is unpopular and presides over a governance disaster. The power structure of the PSUV is increasingly bimodal, with President Nicolás Maduro and President of the National Constituent Assembly Diosdado Cabello now representing two defining poles of power. But there are some frayed edges, with some leaders calling for democratization and reflection.

The party is now in the process of selecting 670 delegates through a complex election processes. Since most of the delegates (384) have already been selected based on the tightly controlled and hierarchical cadre structure of the Battle Units Bolívar-Chávez (UBCH), the PSUV electoral mobilization machinery units, the leadership will likely control the discussions.

Party members have been holding public preliminary meetings to establish the agenda for the congress. These discussions, aligned with the party’s usual abstract and ambitious rhetoric, have resulted in an very general and open agenda: “defense of sovereignty and defense of Venezuela; strengthening of the party-government relationships for a revolutionary transformation; construction of a new economic-productive model as a guarantee for equality; humane and gratifying transition to the construction of Bolivarian socialism…consolidation of Bolivarian democracy through the exercise of a protagonistic Popular Power; and education and self-education of the people for national liberation and the construction of the spiritual and material bases of a socialist society.”

On a more concrete level, preliminary discussions have also included a proposal for a new party structure based on a hierarchy of eight “instances,” starting from “street leaders” and “community leaders,” grouped in the UBCH, climbing up to the top “National Direction” of the president of the party, Nicolás Maduro, the first-vice-president, Diosdado Cabello. There would no longer be regional, vice-presidents. This new structure would effectively concentrate power in the hands of the two top party leaders: Maduro and Cabello.

To these issues discussed by delegates during the preparatory meetings, from the top of the party’s hierarchy, president Nicolás Maduro has added several “guidelines” he says he would like the Congress to consider. These guidelines include two important interconnected issues, one economic and the other political.

On the economic front, Maduro has asked the Congress to “generate proposals and plans to strengthen government’s management.” “In this sense,” says the president, “I want to emphasize the need to advance effective solutions to issues such as bachaqueo [contraband and black market], neoliberal capitalist economy, health, and transportation.” Political analyst Dimitris Pantoulas has said that Maduro needs the party Congress to share the responsibility for the tough economic measures that have become unavoidable: “The economic measures could generate social unrest and this is why the government is so worried. Maduro plays it safe if decisions [on the economy] are the product of the PSUV and not his own,” said Pantoulas.

But in order to do this, Maduro will need to have the party firmly behind him. Thus the second main guideline suggested by the president: “The PSUV must become an instrument of the National Government, headed by the President of the Republic, Nicolas Maduro…Eradicate sectarianism, groupism, and divisionism. The PSUV must follow a united line, under moral and ethical values. Behind factionalism there is always an ego, it is the Devil, we must face the scandalmongers and the schemers,” said the president.

The first vice-president of the party, Diosdado Cabello, is backing president Maduro on this issue and has also addressed the delegates to the Congress asking them to strive for unity: “We Chavistas must be united no matter what circumstances, [because] they [the opposition] have a big media campaign in order to set differences between us,” said Cabello.

Even if the selection process of delegates and the abstract agenda ensures control of the discussions by the party’s leadership, it is possible this Congress could do more than simply rubberstamp Maduro’s economic policies and concentration of power. Internal criticism has been gaining momentum even among high party official.

Dissenting opinions have mainly emerged as critiques of the party and not directly of the government. These voices express the need for the party to engage in a process of self-criticism and reorganize to better serve the needs of the government. For example, Érika Farías, mayor of Caracas’ Libertador Municipality; Eduardo Piñate, labor minister, and Adam Chávez, ex-governor of Barinas and still a prominent PSUV leader have all expressed the need to “reconnect” the party with the people so that it becomes a better instrument for the government’s policies.

The highest ranking Chavista to express concern recently has been the current education minister Elías Jaua. Like other officials, he has said that it has become necessary to “democratize” the socialist party. He has proposed that all of the party leadership should be elected through direct, secret, and universal vote, an anathema in a strictly hierarchical, cadre style, party. “Let us not become a political class in the sense of Gaetano Mosca, that is, a political leadership with the ultimate aim of perpetuating itself in power through the administrative management of politics. Let’s avoid gatopardismo, changing everything so that nothing changes, in the [PSUV] Congress.”

Gaetano Mosca was an Italian political theorist who early in the 20th Century wrote The Ruling Class, one of the classic critques of the concentration of power characteristic of Marxist parties.

Jaua has directed his critique at the Maduro government itself, of which he is still an important official, although much less powerful than in the past. He called for the government to respect people’s right to protest. “Students have a right to protest if their school meal service is irregular and of low quality; inhabitants of the barrios and small towns have the right to raise their voices against abuse by police, gas suppliers, and public transport; the PSUV activist has the right to freely express his opinions and wholly practice popular sovereignty.”

Another party leader, Agriculture Minister, and head of the government’s food distribution program, Freddy Bernal, made even stronger comments. “We have even lost governability. We have to admit it; and we are responsible for it. The Fourth Republic [i.e. before Chávez] is not responsible, no. Not even Carlos Andrés Pérez [ex-president] is responsible, no. We are responsible because we have been in revolution for 19 years and by now we are responsible for the good and the bad in this country.” Like Jaua, and other party leaders, he also called for the “democratization” of the party.

The last PSUV congress, held in July 2014, was also preceded by a rise of internal party criticism and open dissent (read about those episodes here and here.). But Maduro was able to avert major divisions and actually consolidated his leadership in that Congress. That result led analysts to also predict then that Maduro, with the party firmly in control and internal critics silenced or excluded from the party, would perhaps finally push forward with much needed economic reforms. He never did.