U.S. workers and those who are unemployed are frequently told that the current presidential elections are among the most important in this country’s history. With continuing high unemployment and underemployment, declining wages, and looming massive cuts to social programs that help workers, such as Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security, we are at a grave point regarding the direction of this country. However, the policies of both presidential candidates and their parties have perpetuated the devastating effects of the Great Recession for workers. Wall Street, the banks, the corporations, and the wealthy have been the beneficiaries of these policies while the only thing workers have received has been more sacrifices.
In the U.S. presidential elections we are not seeing two competing visions over the direction of the country. Rather, we are witnessing a fight over tactics among big business politicians about how most effectively to sell the corporate agenda to the public and continue the one-sided class war against workers. These elections will not be any kind of game changer. They are a symptom of domination of the 1% over the political and economic system. Voting workers are being asked to pick their poison and have little enthusiasm for this choice.
What a sharp contrast the U.S. presidential elections are to those in Venezuela. Not only are Venezuelans being told that the results of the contest between President Chavez and his challenger, Henrique Capriles, were among the most important in this nation’s history, they felt it in their bones from their own experience.
For decades Venezuela had been dominated by a two party system to provide an illusion of choice, though each party’s policies were guided by the interests of a tiny few oligarchs who sucked up the wealth created by labor for themselves. Such a set-up cannot be maintained forever. After the Caracazo economic uprising in 1989 that was crushed with the death of thousands but followed by ongoing grass roots organizing, the game rules were thrown to the wind with the successful election of Chavez in 1998. Rather than work within the political machine, he ran against both parties and the oligarchs behind them, while leaning on Venezuela’s popular movements for support.
Since then, there has been an evolving struggle. On the one hand Venezuela’s 1% has attempted to overthrow, defeat, and sabotage Chavez. On the other hand the active mass resistance of the people has opposed returning to the way things were before 1998. A clear class line has emerged in this process, and Chavez has increasingly relied on supporting the efforts of workers and the poor to organize their own power over the direction of the country. Capriles, on the other hand, is a representative of the economic elite who want to regain their political control.
What have been the results of this process in contrast to what is happening in the U.S.?
In Venezuela, under Chavez, the privatization of its oil industry has been reversed and when some large private companies have been found to be unable or unwilling to fulfill social needs, the government has taken them over for the benefit of the people. In contrast, when Wall Street’s greed plunged the U.S. into an economic crisis, it was showered with trillions of taxpayer dollars in the form of bailouts and loans while workers were left to suffer the consequences.
According to studies by the U.N.’s Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), Venezuela ranks first in a list of 12 Latin American countries that have reduced inequalities amongst their members.
In contrast, in the U.S., according to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), between the years 2003 and 2005, $400 billion in pre-tax dollars was shifted from the bottom 95 percent to the top 5 percent, costing the bottom 95 percent households $3,660 each. While there was a drop in inequality for a short time after the stock market crash as a result of depleted stock portfolios, it has again accelerated. Since 2010, the top 1% has captured 93 percent of income gains.
When Chavez was first elected president, unemployment was 16.1 percent. Today it has been reduced to 6.5 percent with one of the highest minimum wages in Latin America and food stipends. In contrast, in the U.S., 23 million remain unemployed or underemployed while the minimum wage has dramatically fallen behind the cost of living.
In Venezuela extreme poverty has shrunk from 21 percent in 1999, to 6.9 percent today. For the United States, the movement is in just the opposite direction. According to the Census Bureau last year another 2.6 million Americans fell below the official poverty line on top of the 46.2 million already there. This resulted in the highest number of citizens in poverty since the Census Bureau started tracking the figure 52 years ago.
Millions of U.S. families have been kicked onto the streets because of the high rate of forecloses. There are no foreclosures in Venezuela. In fact, the money that used to go into the pockets of its wealthy elite is now being used to build hundreds of thousands of dignified homes for those in need.
By most indexes, including education and health care, the direction of Venezuela and the U.S. could not be more opposite in regards to what social forces are benefiting from the government’s policies, the few ultra-wealthy big business owners or the vast majority composed largely of workers.
The difference is not primarily a result of the character of Chavez or Obama. It is because in Venezuela the grassroots and worker organizations have taken the political lead with their ceaseless organizing and mass activity for their own interests. Chavez has supported this effort and opened up doors to its further development by redirecting the wealth of Venezuela’s economy away from the 1% towards empowering the nation’s vast majority.
This difference in priorities is also reflected in how campaigns are conducted in Venezuela and the U.S. For instance, last Friday, October 5, up to 3 million jubilant Chavez supporters filled the streets of Caracas in the build-up to the elections on Sunday. This turnout was achieved, in large part, by neighborhood, work place, union and other grass root group organizers talking person-to-person within their networks to get the maximum numbers to the event. It was said that the barrios in Caracas’s heavily populated hills were empty as participants flowed down to the mobilization. There have been several other massive outpourings across the country as election day approached. Notably, the rallies in support of Capriles had only a small fraction of the numbers who braved the tropical heat and rain showers to support President Chavez.
In the U.S., the turnout achieved in support of Chavez is unthinkable for either Obama or Romney. While a few thousand may show up to hear them speak, most people are passive and alienated by the campaign process, since they see their standard of living drop no matter which party is in power. The bulk of campaign efforts are fueled by big money buying up advertising time rather than by community links.
Whereas in the U.S. the presidential elections are business as usual, in Venezuela they mark an important milestone whether the country will continue its process towards “21st Century Socialism” or go in reverse. That is, what is at stake is whether Venezuela will complete a transition where both the political and economic systems are democratically controlled by workers for the sake of society as a whole, or whether the oligarchy will get the upper hand, dismantle — most likely with physical force — the grass roots organizations that have been built, turn the nationalized companies back to their original owners, and run the economy for the benefit of a few capitalists’ profits.
The truth is that Venezuela remains a capitalist country. The old reactionary oligarchy still has a grip on the reins of the economy, though the popular movements have managed to grab a significant hold with Chavez’s aid and numerous industry nationalizations. Either one class or the other will prevail in this struggle. As long as the outcome of the revolutionary process in Venezuela remains at a midway point, the fulfillment of its promise remains uncertain. Nevertheless, even with the worst outcome, its gains will not be easily reversed and its example will provide great lessons for the future.
For all of its imperfections, and there are many, the revolutionary process in Venezuela is a beacon for workers’ struggles internationally. When Europe and the U.S. are cutting away at social programs that benefit workers in the name of austerity, and good jobs remain hard to come by, if not impossible to get, the revolutionary process in Venezuela shows that there is an alternative to this road to ruin.
Each nation’s path to this alternative will be different as a result of its own particular circumstances. Nevertheless, this process will be marked by the fulfillment of definite requirements. The first is a united workers-led social movement independent of the capitalist politicians. Without this in Venezuela there would be no Chavez, no potential example of 21st Century Socialism, or any of the reforms under his presidency.
In the U.S., such an independent social movement has yet to develop that can activate and unite the majority, though there have been important attempts in this direction such as “Occupy Wall Street.” Consequently, the political machinery and its corporate policies remain those of our own oligarchy as the current presidential elections demonstrate. This is a passing episode, however, as our economic elite continue to prepare the foundation for inevitable revolt by the people.