Preparing for a Post-Chavez Venezuela

by George Ciccariello-Maher on March 6, 2013


Hugo Chavez, July 28, 1954 – March 5, 2013 — flickr @chavezcandanga
Originally posted at Counterpunch — Hugo Chávez is no more, and yet the symbolic importance of the Venezuelan President that exceeded his physical persona in life, providing a condensation point around which popular struggles coalesced, will inevitably continue to function long after his death. It’s not for nothing that the words of the great revolutionary folk singer Alí Primera are on the tip of many tongues:

Los que mueren por la vida
no pueden llamarse muertos

Those who die for life
cannot be called dead.

A Barefoot Revolutionary

Hugo Chávez was a poor kid from the country, which tells you much of what you need to know about him. Bare feet, mud hut, perpetual sunburn, gleaning hard lessons and a strong dose of audacity from everyday experiences in that wild part of the Venezuelan flatlands, or llanos, that crash abruptly into the towering Andes mountains.

While politics was in the soil under his feet and in his every social interaction, Chávez’s first formal contact with revolutionary politics came through his elder brother, Adán, a member of the still-clandestine former guerrilla organization, Party of the Venezuelan Revolution (PRV). It was the PRV that refused intransigently to come down from the mountains in the late 1960s when the Venezuelan Communist Party decided to withdraw from the armed struggle, and it was the PRV more than any other organization that resisted Marxist orthodoxy by excavating Venezuelan and Latin American revolutionary traditions under the umbrella of “Bolivarianism.”

Through Adán, Chávez the younger was imbued with the legacy of this Venezuelan guerrilla struggle and its aspirations, a necessary and portentous counterbalance to the official doctrine he would learn in the military academy. But even as a soldier, Chávez was always irreverent to the core, and it wasn’t long before he had begun to organize with other radical officers. Their conspiratorial grouping would eventually be called the MBR-200, the Bolivarian Revolutionary Movement, and it was not a purely military affair, evolving in close contact with revolutionary communist guerrillas from the PRV and elsewhere.

The Old Venezuela

The old Venezuela is no more. The Venezuelan ancien regime was one of self-professed harmony, and it cultivated this myth to the very end. For political scientists, this translated as “Venezuelan exceptionalism”: in a sea of unrest and dictatorship, it alone remained relatively stable and “democratic.” But this was a harmony premised on the invisibility of the majority, and a stability crafted through the incorporation and neutralization of any and all oppositional movements. Those who refused to concede were murdered or imprisoned in the gulags of this “exceptional” democracy.

When Hugo Chávez first attempted to overthrow the Venezuelan government of Carlos Andrés Pérez in 1992, he was attacking a democracy in name only. Decades of two-party rule had created a system that was utterly unresponsive to the needs of the vast majority, and as economic crisis set in during the “lost decade” of the 1980s, the poor turned to rebellion and the government to brute repression. In only the most spectacular of many moments of resistance, the week-long 1989 rebellion known as the Caracazo, somewhere between 300 and 3,000 were slaughtered as Pérez ordered the military to “restore order” in the poor barrios that surround Caracas and other Venezuelan cities.

It was this rebellion more than any other, and the repression it unleashed, that led, nay forced, Chávez and others to attempt a coup with the support of revolutionary grassroots movements, and it was this coup more than any other event that led to his eventual election in 1998. Finally someone had taken a stand, and when Chávez promised on national television that the conspirators had only failed “por ahora, for now,” he was effectively promising, as did Fidel Castro nearly 40 years prior, that history would absolve him.

The New Venezuela

In many ways, it has. Under Chávez’s watch, Venezuela has become more equal, the most egalitarian country in Latin America in fact, according to the Gini coefficient of income distribution. Poverty has been reduced significantly, and extreme poverty almost stamped out. Illiteracy has been eliminated and education is freely accessible, through the university level, to even the poorest Venezuelans. Health care is free and universal. Despite catastrophic language by the Venezuelan opposition and foreign press, the economy is strong, and has weathered the global economic crisis better than most (notably, the United States).

More important than this improvement in the social welfare of the Venezuelan majority, however, are the political transformations that the Venezuelan state and people have undergone, transformations that remain far from complete. This was not a merely populist government that sought to buy votes through handouts, but a radically democratic government that sought, often despite its own autocratic tendencies, to empower the people to intervene from below as the true “protagonists” of history. Through communal councils, cooperatives, communes, and popular militias, the Venezuelan government has radically empowered the radical grassroots, albeit not without resistance from its own bureaucrats.

But these accomplishments do not belong to Chávez alone, and in fact, they do not belong to Chávez at all. Long before Chávez, there were the revolutionary movements that tried, failed, and tried better, generating the experiences, organizations, and outlooks that would eventually propel Chávez to the helm of an untrustworthy state. Any celebration of Chávez that presents him as a savior is an insult to the people he held in such high esteem, and whose orders he followed.

Inversely, some ill-informed leftists decry him as not having been revolutionary enough, not moving quickly enough toward socialism: the revolution must be all at once or not at all. Others, here taking a page from the liberals, attack him for being authoritarian, autocratic, and undemocratic. But this all misses the most fundamental point: that the Venezuelan revolution is not Chávez. If we fail to understand why many millions of Venezuelans are in mourning today, then we have voluntarily abandoned any serious effort to understand what is going on in Venezuela.

A Combative Democrat

Even as President, Chávez’s rural persona always managed to break through the polite veneer of political leadership: as when he would often spontaneously break into llanero song, speak in country parables and refranes, or brutally attack opponents and allies alike on live television. Also arguably a legacy of the countryside was his paradoxical democratic authoritarianism: deeply respectful of the people and fervently egalitarian, he would not take no for an answer when it came to revolutionizing the country. While Chávez had long dreamed of becoming a major league pitcher, his childhood nickname, latigo, the whip, described his approach to politics at least as well as it described his fastball.

But this contradiction was not his own: direct democracy and representative democracy are rarely the sympathetic allies their names might suggest, and one of the seeming paradoxes of the Bolivarian Revolution is that it has taken a firm push from above to clear the way for radically democratic participation from below. This is what critics of Chávez and the Bolivarian Revolution mean when they suggest that he has run roughshod over democratic “checks and balances,” failing to note that such institutional constraints, however justifiable, are often far from democratic.

As a result, the two sides seem to speak completely different languages: for the one, which seems to include Republican Congressman Ed Royce bid a quick “good riddance” to Chávez, the leader was an authoritarian dictator. Such claims come as a surprise to Chavistas, however, who have elected him many times, repeatedly choosing the path of an increasingly radical revolutionary process, and who are quick to point out the contradiction between their democratic will and term limits. Many poor Venezuelans, too, were surprised at the outrage that ensued when Chávez referred to George W. Bush as “the devil” or as a “donkey.” The poor rarely grasp the role of politeness in politics, seeing it instead intuitively but correctly as the realm of powerful oppositions, of Bush’s own “you’re with us or you’re against us.”

The Manichean nature of Venezuelan politics in recent years has been undeniable, but we would be well advised to recognize, with Frantz Fanon, that this division between us and them, Chavistas and escualidos (or more recently, majunches), was more a reflection of a structural reality than the fault of Chávez or the Revolution. While elite Venezuelans began to mourn the disappearance of Venezuelan “harmony,” what they really meant was that, all of a sudden, poor and dark-skinned Venezuelans had appeared, had made their presence felt, and had even assumed the mantle of the government as a mechanism for pressing their demands.

Chávez certainly courted Manicheanism to mobilize the people in the struggle, but this Manicheanism also came to him, for phenotypic as well as political reasons: dark-skinned, with a wide nose and large ears, “with his very image, Chávez has shaken up the beehive of social harmony… His image upsets the wealthy women of Cuarimare.” Chávez and his supporters have long been racialized in terms that would seem scandalous anywhere else: monkey, blackie, scum, horde, rabble. Open racism exploded during the 2002 coup that unseated Chávez for less than two days, in many ways forcing him to recognize it publicly in a country that had often celebrated mestizaje and insisted that there was no racism in Venezuela. In the end, this Manicheanism has become the most important motor for driving the revolutionary process forward, unifying the people against a common enemy and preparing them for the struggle ahead.

I was supposed to meet Hugo Chávez, but he cancelled at the last minute. His unpredictability stemmed from a combination of security concerns and an irrepressible desire to do everything himself. The closest I ever got was about 10 feet away, awash in a rushing torrent of red-shirted Chavistas on the Avenida Bolívar in 2007, as the now late President drove by atop a truck. As he passed, I reached up and performed my favorite Chavista gesture: pounding palm with fist to symbolize the brutal pummeling of the opposition. As though confirming the centrality of combat in a Revolution that would outlive him, he looked at me and did the same.

The Revolution Will Not Be Reversed

What will happen next? Within 30 days, there will be elections, in which Chávez’s hand-picked successor Nicólas Maduro will almost certainly prevail against an opposition that only seems to ever come together for the purposes of then falling apart. But the future in the longer term remains unwritten. While nothing is inevitable, however, a great many poor and radicalized Venezuelans will tell you that they will not take ni un paso atras, a single step back, and that conversely, no volverán, they shall not return. And they mean it.

This is a revolutionary assurance that has never depended solely on the figure of Chávez. As I write in the introduction to my forthcoming book We Created Chávez:

“The Bolivarian Revolution is not about Hugo Chávez. He is not the center, not the driving force, not the individual revolutionary genius on whom the process as a whole relies or in whom it finds a quasi-divine inspiration. To paraphrase the great Trinidadian theorist and historian C.L.R. James: Chávez, like the Haitian revolutionary Toussaint L’Ouverture, ‘did not make the revolution. It was the revolution that made’ Chávez. Or, as a Venezuelan organizer told me, ‘Chavez didn’t create the movements, we created him.’”

In 1959, Frantz Fanon declared the Algerian Revolution irreversible, despite the fact that the country would not gain formal independence for another three years. Studying closely the transformation of Algerian culture during the course of the struggle and the creation of what he called a “new humanity,” Fanon was certain that a point of no return had been reached, writing that:

“An army can at any time reconquer the ground lost, but how can the inferiority complex, the fear and the despair of the past be reimplanted in the consciousness of the people?”

In revolution, there are no guarantees, and there’s no saying that the historical dialectic cannot be bent back upon itself, beaten and bloody. The point is simply that for the forces of reaction to do so will be no easy task. Long ago, the Venezuelan people stood up, and it is difficult if not impossible to tell a people on their feet to get back down on their knees.

 


 

George Ciccariello-Maher teaches political theory at Drexel University in Philadelphia. He is the author of We Created Chávez: A People’s History of the Venezuelan Revolution (Duke University Press, May 2013), and can be reached at gjcm(at)drexel.edu.

  • David Berger

    I believe that the most important task in considering the situation in Venezuela at this point is to eliminate the bullshit. The article above, as far as I’m concerned, misses a major point. It’s telling that he quotes Fanon on the irreversibility of the Algerian Revolution, and then he has to backtrack beclause the Algerian Revolution was indeed reversed.

    The fact is that Venezuela remains capitalist. There is a very strong state-owned element, so we can call it at least partially state capitalism. But state capitalism is by no means incompatible with global, corporate capitalism as we have seen. I don’t have the figures at my fingertips, but the economies of China and Russia are both about 1/3 state-owned. And no one, I hope, is going to argue that these two countries have anything to do with socialism.

    So what do we have in Venezuela? To coin a term: social democratic state capitalism or, if you will, some form of social democracy. Consider the Scandinavian countries; consider England after WWII, for models. Great advances were made in social welfare. Elements of the economy such as the British coal industry were nationalized. But the substructures remained capitalist. The same is true in Venezuela. Great social advances have been made on the basis of revenues from the oil industry. These advances are as real as the “cradle to grave” advances that were made in Scandinavia and are now being eroded during the current global capitalist crisis.

    But the working class does not control the oil industry of any other industry in Venezuela anymore than the Chinese working class controls the state-owned industries in China. There are “communal councils, cooperatives, communes, and popular militias,” but none of these constitute workers control of the economy. So long as this does not exist, the social gains of the Chavez years are completely reversible. In the end, the only way to consolidate those gains will be the overthrow of capitalism, state and corporate, in Venezuela and elsewhere.

    • http://www.planetanarchy.net Pham Binh

      “But the working class does not control the oil industry of any other industry in Venezuela anymore than the Chinese working class controls the state-owned industries in China. There are ‘communal councils, cooperatives, communes, and popular militias,’ but none of these constitute workers control of the economy. So long as this does not exist, the social gains of the Chavez years are completely reversible.”

      As if workers’ control and socialism cannot be overturned or reversed. Neither lasted very long after 1917 in Russia.

      To say that Venezuela remains capitalist does not get us very far in terms of analysis or in terms of figuring out immediate tasks.

      • David Berger

        Pham Binh: As if workers’ control and socialism cannot be overturned or reversed. Neither lasted very long after 1917 in Russia.

        David Berger: No one has said it can’t be reversed. However, my point is that workers control is the essence of socialism: No workers control; no socialism.

        Pham Binh: To say that Venezuela remains capitalist does not get us very far in terms of analysis or in terms of figuring out immediate tasks.

        David Berger: All I was attempting to do was to clear up one important point: that Venezuela is not socialist and that the reforms that have been accomplished are steps in the reforming of capitalism, not steps towards socialism.

  • http://socialistorganizer.org David Walters

    David Berger wrote:
    “But state capitalism is by no means incompatible with global, corporate capitalism as we have seen.”

    No, it isn’t. IF there are any lessons from the Imperialist offensive for the last 20 or more years, is that they cannot tolerate any backsliding by regimes in developing countries away from totally free flow of capital in and out of the country in question.

    U.S. Imperialism, in every single one of it’s diplomatic, military and overall political forays around the world is based on making these countries safe for investment (and the collateral issue of free trade). Not to recognize this and that it stems from the crisis of Imperialism’s recent financial crisis, is to miss what Imperialism is doing.

    When Chavez nationalized *anything* was met with total opposition and condemnation by every financial institution of Imperialism everywhere. While one can argue that Chavez was ‘wrong’ in trying to negotiate his way of it this, his appearance in 2005 at the NY Stock Exchange and other forms of peaceful co-existence he may of believed in, was predicated on his and his country’s populations desire for full and total economic sovereignty. At no point has Imperialism been willing to cut Venezuela a millimeter of slack on this.

    • http://www.planetanarchy.net Pham Binh

      So you’re saying, “yes, it [state capitalism/Chavismo/nationalization] is incompatible with global, corporate capitalism,” right? The way it’s formulated now (saying no to a double negative) is confusing.

      • David Walters

        Pham, yes, I think regardless of the label one wants to attach to the state in Venezuela, what it was doing, as well as in Argentina, these sorts of large state inventions in the economy are *not* compatible with Imperialism any more, where as once upon time, such interventions (massive nationalizations, regulations, restrictions on investment and trade) were relatively acceptable especially if it meant to stave off revolutions and buy off and expand a wing of the labor aristocracy. Now not even the existence of a labor aristocracy is acceptable. Nationalized anything is not acceptable. Chavez was not acceptable.

        David B (I’ll respond here to what you wrote below). I think you have it completely wrong. You are levelling huge pieces of history (and thus the class struggle along with it) as if it’s one simple answer. It is not.

        The Japanese economy as well as the German were institutionally State intervened in no small part because of the “say so” of the US Army and State Dept that wanted to destory the ability of the native capitalist class to ever wage inter-Imperialist war again.

        Those two economies, along with the French, Italian and British economies were faced with a massive labor mobilizations *demanding* nationalizations of basic industry and utilities (mines, railways and electricity) along with highly regulated banking rules (akin to Glass-Stegal in the US). Pre-revolutionary situations developed in Italy and France and the Japanese labor movement was “out of control”. So they needed stability and a way of buying off some sectors of our class which the Marshall Plan helped in providing.

        The difference between Taiwan and the Republic of Korea on the one hand and Britain and France on the other is monumental. The latter two shattered by civil war and economic dislocation with feudal land relations that lead to the spiking of the Republic of China and the massively ugly Korean War. Both these countries forced the end of feudal land relations and instituted massive land reforms, in the case of the ROK, even establishing “collectives” of a sort in order to placate the peasant masses. In Taiwan they bought up the landed aristocracy and both countries were allowed to have massive intervention by the state to kick start the economies.

        Britain, France and other Euro countries were imperialist countries facing massive labor revolts. But Imperialism in the US and Canada had massive surpluses to unload. These surpluses no longer exist and the rate of profit plummets and is based on speculation now. Back in the post war period they had ‘give’ to give to the working class, now, none. Thus they could allow Taiwan and Germany to do what they did. Now it’s reversing.

        David

        David

    • David Berger

      Do not confuse the political and even military opposition that global capitalism will exert against state capitalism as expressions of incompatibility. Capitalist states go to war over divvying up the swag. Hence WWI, WWII, etc. That does not mean that their systems are incompatible. As Richard Estes says below: “Chavez’s economic policies weren’t that different from those implemented in countries like Japan, South Korea and Taiwan after World War II.”

      The difference is that that was a period of expanding capitalism. However, in the 1950s, the US overthrew the government of Iran for trying to nationalize the oil industry. Why? It was not a matter of incompatibility of Iran’s system with the rest of the capitalist world, but a matter of control and profits.

  • http://www.amleft.blogspot.com Richard Estes

    David Berger highlights an important point. Chavez was no Marxist, as explained by Tariq Ali yesterday. Berger is correct to describe Chavez as a social democrat, as Chavez himself acknowledged it:

    http://www.counterpunch.org/2013/03/07/hugo-chavez-and-me/

    “The following year in Caracas I questioned him further on the Bolívarian project. What could be accomplished? He was very clear; much more so than some of his over-enthusiastic supporters: ”I don’t believe in the dogmatic postulates of Marxist revolution. I don’t accept that we are living in a period of proletarian revolutions. All that must be revised. Reality is telling us that every day. Are we aiming in Venezuela today for the abolition of private property or a classless society? I don’t think so. But if I’m told that because of that reality you can’t do anything to help the poor, the people who have made this country rich through their labour – and never forget that some of it was slave labour – then I say: ‘We part company.’ I will never accept that there can be no redistribution of wealth in society. Our upper classes don’t even like paying taxes. That’s one reason they hate me. We said: ‘You must pay your taxes.’ I believe it’s better to die in battle, rather than hold aloft a very revolutionary and very pure banner, and do nothing … That position often strikes me as very convenient, a good excuse … Try and make your revolution, go into combat, advance a little, even if it’s only a millimetre, in the right direction, instead of dreaming about utopias.””

    Chavez escaped from poverty, and never forgot it. As a consequence, he materialistically measured his policies by the extent to which they improved the lives of his impoverished people, and by that measure, he was a great success, a success that the left should acknowledge. Furthermore, he politically empowered the lower and lower middle classes, he assisted them in the attainment of a self-confident political identity. The greatness of this achievement is demonstrated by the fact that no one outside out of South America has been able to do this. Surely, this is a precondition of any prospect of more radical political action along socialist lines.

    Interestingly, it has been the response of the US and the Venezuelan elite that has intensified the conflict in Venezuela along class lines through their resistance to Chavez. Chavez’s economic policies weren’t that different from those implemented in countries like Japan, South Korea and Taiwan after World War II, where the US permitted the provision of substantial public services and assistance, but, with the USSR no longer a threat, the US is no longer tolerant of them. Hence, the 2002 coup, the disruption of PDVSA, the 2004 referendum and US support for opposition media and political activity. All of these things have resulted in the drawing of sharper class lines that would have otherwise been the case.

    Oddly, one can make the case that Chavez was an anti-imperialist LBJ, at a time when it is no longer considered necessary for capitalism to concern itself with things like poverty, income inequality and educational opportunity (LBJ, too, required the support of social movements, especially the civil rights movement, to enable him to proceed with the Voting Rights Act and the War on Poverty). Given the headwinds that he struggled against, the left should respect his accomplishments, while thinking about how to build upon them.

    • http://magpie68.blogspot.co.uk Brian S.

      Sounds like Chavez got it about right then, when it came to domestic matters. Just a shame he couldn’t extend this logic to his foreign policy.

    • Louis Proyect

      I just read Tariq Ali’s piece. I am not sure it says that much about whether Chavez is a Marxist or not. Stating that we are not living in a period of proletarian revolution does not indicate whether that you agree with Marx or not. For example, this is the same thing I have heard from Doug Henwood whose commitment to Marxism as an analytical tool is very deep. I think that if the USSR still existed, Chavez would have been emboldened to take more aggressive action against the capitalist class. Considering the relationship of class forces internationally today, Chavez acquitted himself pretty well over the past decade or so.

    • David Walters

      The difference Richard is that he has empowered the mass of poor and working class people *as a self conscious class* do demand these nationalizations (many of which Chavez refused to do, BTW). Nationalization as concessions by the capitalists to stave off revolution is one thing, the same nationalizations based on mass mobilizations, occupations and a general rise in socialist consciousness is NOT the same.

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