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Venezuela: What to expect in 2008

by Fred Fuentes

During last year’s "state of the nation" address, Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez outlined his plan to speed up the revolution over 2007. Central to this was the "5 motors" that were to drive the revolution forward, along with reiterating his call to form a united socialist party of the revolution.

With the defeat of the referendum on constitutional reform - one of the motors - the false start of the motor on new geometry of power which was tied to the reform, a poor showing on the other 3, and the new party still non-existent, Chavez end 2007 in a difficult position.

Since then much has been made about the direction the revolution will take partly Chavez's talk of "putting the brakes" on the revolution and his cabinet reshuffle. An article in the New Statesman even went as far as to say that Chavez was doing a U-turn on his socialist project.

However his speech for the "state of the nation" address today to the National Assembly gave a bit of an insight into what we can expect this year.

Of course the big news that most of the media is running on, and the issue which Chavez touched first was the successful hand over of the 2 hostages that, until recently, were being held by the FARC. Despite the best attempts of the Uribe government to block progress on this front, the Bolivarian revolution has begun the year with a massive victory, for which it has won much support.

In response to these developments - whilst explaining the treacherous role that Uribe played in the humanitarian mission, including bombing the area that the FARC had designated as the drop off zone for the hostages - Chavez called on Colombia, as well as other countries to remove the FARC and the National Liberation Army (ELN) from their list of terrorist organisations, He referred to them as "real insurgent forces that have a political and bolivarian project".

He ratified his commit to continuing working for peace in Colombia, but stated that dialogue would now have to begin on a higher level, with "the recognition [by the Colombian government] of the FARC and ELN as insurgent forces and not terrorist groups".

The future of these negotiations could be crucial for the two countries and the region. On the one hand, it may just provide the political space to allow the FARC to move beyond their seemingly stalled strategy of guerilla warfare and enter into national political scene in the context of a reemergent urban "Bolivarian" movement in Colombia.

But more importantly it may end up underminding the US' arguments for maintaining its military operations and Plan Colombia (really Plan Venezuela) and raise the issue why the hell they are in Colombia given they certaining haven't been successful in achieving peace in any sense of the word. This is no doubt why the US has been placing huge pressure on Uribe to block this process.

Moving to domestic issues, Chavez emphasised once again the three R's that would guide this year - reflection, rectification and reimpulse. He explained that there was a need to slow down the revolution. But this was necesary, not to deviate from the project of socialism but rather to allow for "more revolution" as the government could focus on key issues.

A key aspect of this would be improving government efficience, which was reflected in the choice of ministers, many of whom are general regarded to have performed well. Perhaps most clearest in this sense is the vice president - famous for his role in rebuilding the collapsed bridge linking Caracas to the international airport in record time (in collaboration with private capital) as well as producing more houses last year than any other previous housing minister has in a year by a mile.

This efficiency is necessary said Chavez to tackle the key concerns of the people: insecurity, food shortages, in situation of the jail system, corruption, impunity and bureacratism.

Taking up the hot issues of food shortages, Chavez made little mention of the government decision to remove price controls on 380 products, leaving them on only 20. Many have pointed to this as a backdown by the government, how the reality is that the government never prepared itself adequate to implement and monitor these controls.

Today Chavez stated bluntly: The monetary reconversion has come side by side with "an operation against speculators, but it is no longer enough to just shut down establishments". Any shop involved in speculation will be expropriated "in order to pass over into the hands of the people, no matter the size of the economic unit".

Chavez pointed out the high level of support for the government and the general feeling of improvement in living standards for ordinary Venezuelans expressed in the 2007 Latinobarometer poll. Central to this have been the missions, some of which Chavez acknowledged “have become woren out, there are deviations in others, that is why we are obliged in this first trimester to revise and relaunch them with more force and efficience".

Chavez alerted that “the government has to recuperate the lost confidence" . There is an "ill feeling" amongst the people "due to the contradiction between the words of the leader and the reality."

Another welcomed comment was Chavez' statement that "we agree with the existence of different currents within the revolutionary movement" whilst opposing divisionist currents. One of the errors the government, and Chavez had made last year, had been to deny this exact thing, as leaders of the new party constantly came out public denying the existance of any divergent currents or that they should be allowed to exist, whilst a disciplinary committee was set up for the party and two figures seen as on the left of chavismo (Alberto Muller Rojas and Luis Tascon) were pushed out of the national commission, and the party as a whole respectively.

Whilst calling for more effort to be put into the PSUV, who's founding congress starts on Saturday, he reiterated the call for the formation of the Patriotic Pole to unite all chavista forces. Unlike the referendum campaign where at the national level the two main chavista parties outside the PSUV, Homeland For All (PPT) and the Communist Party (PCV) were excluded and forced to set up separate national command, Chavez call on them as well as "those who are truly nationalist, pro-venezuelan, patriots", to set up an alliance in order to go into the elections for mayors and governors in a stronger position, "where we need to conserve and consolidate spaces won until now by the people".

Chavez also pointed out that in the 40 years of representative democracy only 15 electoral contests had been staged, whilst since 1999, when Chavez assumed power, 11 have been held. He stated that if the opposition were unsuccessful in collecting enough signature force Chavez to a recall referendum in 2010, he could initiate one himself (as the constitution provides for) on two questions. Do you support Chavez continuing to be president and Do you support reforming the constitution to all continuous reelection".

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