The Meaning of Venezuela's Bolivarian Revolution

— Greg Albo

A FEATURE OF revolutions is that they keep coming around in unexpected ways and in unexpected places.  Who would have dared predict the eruption that was Seattle in November 1999, when the powers behind neoliberal globalization seemed completely incontestable?

And who would have then predicted—certainly not those sages of the global social justice movement who quite consciously moved to the margins the issue of winning state power as another "failed blueprint"—that Venezuela under Hugo Rafael Chavez Frias would emerge as the key zone insisting that alternatives to neoliberalism must not only be asserted, but tried?

But this is exactly the importance of Chavez and the Bolivarian revolutionary process, as the Chavistas refer to their struggle, for the Left at this juncture. [See note 1] The politically-charged arena that Venezuela has become revealed all this and more during the August 15 Presidential Referendum on President Chavez's tenure in office.

Democracy and the Referendum Coming to power in 1998 in a unique "civic-military alliance" after the self-destruction of Venezuela's "stable democracy through the 1990s, Chavez pushed for passage of Venezuela's Bolivarian Constitution refounding the Republic. [See note 2]

The new Constitution was a massive departure in the extent to which it deepened democratic proceduralism, indigenous and human rights and citizen initiatives.  But it also embraced an alternate economic model in linking participatory democracy with cooperatives and worker self-management.

The new Constitution allowed as well for a presidential recall vote if signatures could be gathered that equaled 20% of the voting electorate in the previous Presidential election, an entirely unique process that could not even have been imagined in Latin America before Chavez.

Since Chavez was elected in 1998, the old conservative and social democratic parties, which had shared power and split the proceeds of oil wealth between them, had combined with economic elites in different Opposition configurations to attempt to defeat Chavez either at the polls or through force.

The ferociousness of the Opposition's ideological hatred (which also masked racial and class hatreds) and mobilization kept together an otherwise organizationally splintered coalition through innumerable, indeed almost daily, twists and turns.  The strategy to unseat Chavez through a recall campaign was driven along by the Opposition's control of the mass media.

Although the signature campaign was filled with irregularities, and despite evidence of illegal external funding to the Opposition group SUMATE from the U.S. National Endowment for Democracy and other offices, the Venezuelan National Electoral Council ruled that a recall referendum should go ahead.  After initial hesitations Chavez declared that the Referendum should proceed.

The political arithmetic in the President's office was coolly calculated: The failed military coup of April 2002, and the subsequent disastrous disruption of the oil sector by the Opposition over several months, had allowed the Chavez government to consolidate in turn control over the military and the state oil company PDVSA.  A failure to defeat Chavez in a Referendum would leave the Opposition in further political disarray and advance the social base for the Chavista reform agenda.

In short, Chavez moved to seize the new political space that the Opposition opened up to advance structural institutional reform and to deepen the pro-Chavez, anti-neoliberal political bloc. The referendum polarized the choices starkly: Are you for the advance of the reforms of the Bolivarian process, or with the old and corrupt oligarchs?

Nothing could be better suited to sharpen the ideological clarity of the popular base backing Chavez.  This enabled the Chavistas to go beyond the initial Bolivarian Circles created in defense of the revolution and the Constitution, to new organizational vehicles to develop cadres and to link the government and its supporters amongst the working class and the barrios of the poor (particularly in the absence of a mass political party to do the job).

The referendum result itself—announced in the early hours of August 16th to great celebration in the Miraflores Presidential Palace—was electrifying and anti-climatic at the same time. The 'No' vote against removal of the President was resounding: almost 60 percent of the vote and winning in 23 of 24 states (including eight controlled by the Opposition), with 4-5 million more voters than when Chavez was first elected, and adding to the string of electoral victories of Chavez and his followers.

So open was the process that the vote was immediately sanctioned by hundreds of international electoral observers, from the reticent Organization of American States and the U.S.-based Carter Center to dozens of NGOs and academics.  But the Opposition signalled its rejection of the results, to what should have been no one's surprise, before the Venezuelan Electoral Commission could even report.

This purely theatrical gesture warned that the play was far from over, and that the ruling classes still in place would use their economic and social power to disrupt, discredit and wear down the government as best as they could.  Thus the Referendum results recorded both the insistence of the poor and the Chavista cadres to get on with the job of constructing a "Bolivarian" Venezuela, and the declaration of the Opposition that much of the ground for construction had yet to be broken.

The Latin American Crisis

During the past two decades, the adoption of export-oriented economic strategies and liberalized capital movements across Latin America make moves toward more inward strategies to meet basic needs singular and fraught with obstacles. [See note 3]

Venezuela's economic decline over this period has been as stark as any in Latin America.  From 1978 to 1990 real GDP fell almost continuously, only systematically recovering with the American boom of the 1990s, and with negative GDP growth rates again returning with the political turmoil of 2002-3 (but with growth forecast at 10 percent for 2004 with the return of the oil industry to production at high world prices). [See note 4]

As the fifth largest oil producer in the world and with global oil prices piercing $50 US a barrel, Venezuela has a conjunctural advantage. [See note 5] Notably, Venezuela has been able keep its foreign debt obligations under control, while still accumulating official reserves and often running a government fiscal deficit.  But the political turmoil produced by the Opposition's attempted coup and disruption of oil production caused enormous economic damage, which has yet to be fully made up.

With the Economic Commission on Latin America (ECLA) declaring the 1990s Latin America's second lost decade, it will soon likely have to do so for a third. [See note 6] Here Venezuela records the same numbing neoliberal patterns of reproduction of social inequality as elsewhere: some 80% of the population living in poverty, while 20% enjoy the oligarchic wealth produced by oil revenues; the worst performance in per capita GDP in Latin American recorded from the late 1970s to the present; the collapse of rural incomes leading to massive migration into the cities, with close to 90% of the population now in urban areas, particularly Caracas, one of the world's growing catalogue of slum cities.

Three quarters of new job growth is estimated to be in the informal sector, comprising over half of the working population; and recorded unemployment levels (which have quite unclear meaning given the extent reserve armies of underemployed in the informal economy) for some time have hovered between 15-20%.

The catalogue of social ills produced by neoliberal models of economic development makes for sober reading.  These all impinge on Chavez and the coalition of forces around his Movimiento Quinta Republica (MVR), but the booming oil sector allows far more room for redistribution policies and potential to convert oil revenues into 'endogenous development' than elsewhere.

Finally, the pervasive sense of "class against class" struggle is etched right into both the urban landscape of Caracas and the countryside, of regimented order and chaos, of private luxury and slum, of neighborhoods against and for Chavez, of huge estates and squatters' shacks.

It was clear to all sides in the Referendum that what was at stake was not merely a change between this or that government, or this or that leader preaching better times one day and austerity the next—the standard fare of bourgeois democracy today—but a real struggle over social and state power.

In immediate terms, this could be seen as a test as to whether the Chavez reform and redistribution program would simply continue in the face of neoliberal orthodoxy.  But in a deeper prefigurative sense, the mobilization of the poor and their raised expectations during the Referendum places on the agenda the entire character of Chavez's "participatory and protagonist democracy" project, and a terrain of struggle over social power that remains to be engaged.

Challenges for Bolivarian Revolution The challenges that now face Chavez and his Bolivarian revolution are many, and quite possibly far more intractable and complex than the political terrain that has so far been the predominant battlefield. [See note 7]

Perpetual political campaigning and relative economic and political isolation have more than once exhausted a revolutionary process, and the many forms that this destabilization can take remains a bedrock of American imperialist policy.  The strategy of exhaustion has, of course, been applied continually toward Cuba through economic embargo, diplomatic isolation and threat of military action; more direct military measures were taken against both the FSLN and FMLN in Nicaragua and El Salvador to exhaust these political movements.

The failed military coup and the need for oil exports out of Venezuela has blocked these imperialist modalities for now. But the Opposition will, no doubt, continue to be looked on favorably from abroad to fund "democracy," and it, in turn, will seek out new ways to test Chavez's legitimacy. [See note 8] This course is limited, however, by the very process of the referendum and further Opposition divisions over future strategy.

Destabilizing and militarizing the Colombia-Venezuela border cannot be ruled out, with Plan Colombia and paramilitaries being the vehicles to do so. Some of the skirmishes in the Apure region of Venezuela that ended with the killing of oil workers in September 2004, and other reports of Columbian paramilitaries earlier in the year, are indications of this tack with uncertainty and strategic exhaustion apparently as much the objective as direct destabilization at this point.

Apart from Cuba, support from other Latin American states has been at best fleeting.  Cuban support has been critical to the capacity of the Chavez regime capacity to improve health care (through thousands of doctors implicitly paid for by oil shipments to Cuba at favorable prices) and also, to a degree, other areas of social policy.

Most importantly, none of the other Latin American states, especially Brazil and Argentina with Center-Left governments, have yet attempted their own departure from neoliberalism.  This has meant that external economic conditions apart from the oil sector remain unfavorable—whether for exports, due to fiscal austerity, or for regional efforts to foster internal development and diversification.

Thus Chavez's Bolivarian project of a more politically integrated Latin America has won him a wide audience amongst the poor and Left in Latin America, but has few concrete measures yet to speak of that would support and generalize an alternate economic model.  Oil export dependence on the U.S. market remains a central parameter in all economic and political calculations.

Internally, the economic planning capacities of the Venezuelan state remain barely developed if not completely negligible.  This is in part a longer term problem.  The corruption and economic direction of the old regime has left a legacy of a severely incapacitated state bureaucracy, which seeks to defend the old order rather than break from it.

The legacy of neoliberalism has been to further disorganize central coordinating mechanisms, apart from the central bank's capacity to impose monetary discipline and debt management policies of economic ministries.

New Economic Strategy?

Utilization of the economic surplus to diversify economically is another matter.  The oil company PDVSA seems to have reestablished its operational capacities under the new Chavista management, and has more than a few projects and suitors to pursue.  Here the critical question is still one of gaining control of oil revenues and improving national technological capacities apart from foreign capital.

In sectors where the means of production require enormous capital outlays (heavy industry, telecommunications, electricity, transportation, food distribution), a strategic orientation has not clearly consolidated, and enterprise governance structures and central coordination planning for investment—some of which need to be regional strategies with other Latin American countries as, for example, in steel and auto assembly—remain only loosely defined.

More has been done to develop initiatives in the "popular economy" through cooperatives, laws on micro-credit, new efforts to foster producer and craft associations, land reforms and small agricultural production.  But these also require central administrative capacities to provide resources, infrastructure, technical support and a long period of stable financing to bear fruit.

State and local capacities to convert the economic surplus into an alternate economic policy agenda remain nascent and underdeveloped.  The limits of economic policy capacity captures what still appears as a critical characteristic of the Venezuelan state, and a challenge for deepening the processes of democratization: The state apparatuses remain only partly under Chavista control, in that the existing bureaucracy is poorly integrated with the central government, and often forms a passive opposition to the Chavista reforms. [See note 9]

While elections and political fortune have given Chavez's movement control of the Presidency, Congress, the military and the state oil company, much of the remaining state apparatus is still not fully accountable and its modes of operation not reorganized in support of the Bolivarian project.

Part of this is due to other levels of government being controlled by the Opposition.  So, for example, Caracas retains extreme divisions in urban services, education and health provision, and so forth, according to district, reproducing a deeply etched economic apartheid across its entire urban space.  The dual power between the still-existing economic and social elites comprising the ruling class Opposition, and the government's control over key institutions and the oil sector, are crystallized in the divisions within the Venezuelan state itself.

Strength and Weakness

The weaknesses of Chavez's MVR and the other supporting parties has meant that Chavez has acted at the central level to speak to "the people" directly, using his populist appeal to gain support for his political agenda.  It also has served to empower the political base in the barrios to move ahead with building neighborhood capacities and infrastructure as they can.

To the good, this has often meant a clear orientation in local cadres against centralized control and being collapsed into overarching structures, including political parties.  These community associations and cadres, with women playing a very large role especially in the health sector, will defend the gains of the Bolivarian process whatever regime is in power.

But this very same weak party structure and pattern of political mobilization means that the cadres so vital for the central coordination necessary to redistribute resources to the base and reorient the state apparatuses are all but absent.

Thus economic and political strategizing and the mobilization for their implementation within the state—as fundamental to the processes of democratization as those of empowerment at the political base—lack any clear vectors of political accountability to the wider movement, or administrative mechanisms to ensure their implementation.

For example, national legislation establishing Local Public Planning Councils has been passed, but these have yet to be effectively implemented. [See note 10] It is hard to see how control over the state can be deepened; how penetration of the 40% who consistently still oppose Chavez and who include significant sections of workers in the formal and informal sectors can occur; how an independent union movement can evolve; all this without formal organizations and mechanisms that can deepen the debate and participation over the content of the Bolivarian process.

A Left Beyond Neoliberalism?

In other words, the still to be conquered state power—and thus economic power—will be resolved neither by Chavez's own personal role nor by appeals to community-based power structures alone.

The social fracturing over state power has typically been the critical point in the class struggle of 'political rupture' where the old ways of doing things are no longer sustainable if the new ways are to be given life and allowed to develop their independent course.

More than one process of social transformation has turned back at the prospects and sought out political compromise on the old terrain, or hardened itself into a permanent war setting to attain stability for the new regime at all costs.  Still others have pushed ahead.  Chavez's Bolivarian revolution is, in its own specific way, at this juncture in the struggle against, and effort to move beyond, neoliberalism in Venezuela.

The degree of freedom of transformative regimes to experiment and chart an independent democratic course has confronted consistently hostile imperial powers and the economic imperatives of the capitalist world market.  This has always given special responsibility for the Left, in the centers of capitalism and the international labor movement, to provide solidarity and political accountability for the efforts of their own governments to isolate and choke off any progressive, not even to say revolutionary, process.

Such embargoes by the imperialist states have always been issued as much for their own domestic class struggles as to sanction the affront to the capitalist world market.  The importance of Chavez to those outside Venezuela is that the Bolivarian movement is re-posing the question for the Left of 'what we want to become' and not just of 'what we no longer want to be' after all the destructiveness of the last decades.

Thus the vote for Chavez in the Presidential Referendum of August 2004, it needs to be said, was a vote for the Left everywhere, an act which can best be supported by re-imagining our own movements.

Notes:

  1. For surveys of the process see: Richard Gott, In the Shadow of the Liberator: Hugo Chavez and the Transformation of Venezuela (London: Verso, 2000); Steve Ellner and Daniel Hellinger, eds., Venezuelan Politics in the Chavez Era (Boulder: Lynne Rienner, 2003); and in particular the writings of Jonah Gindin and Gregory Wilpert at venezuelanalysis.com. See also the Washington-based Venezuela Information Office for a variety of sources of Chavez's government.
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  2. Richard Hillman, Democracy for the Privileged: Crisis and Transition in Venezuela (Boulder: Lynne Rienner, 1994); Javier Corrales, Presidents Without Parties: The Politics of Economic Reform in Argentina and Venezuela in the 1990s (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2002); Steve Ellner, "The Radical Potential of Chavismo in Venezuela," Latin American Perspectives, 28: 5 (2001).  Chavez's failed military coup of the early 1990s had a 'civic-military' alliance notion behind it, and his adoption of the institutional and democratic road to power has maintained this strategy.  A meritocractic officer corps and isolation from the U.S. military School of the Americas has allowed a different social base and orientation to the Venezuelan military, which has made Chavez far from unique.  Unlike Chile under Allende in the 1970s, Chavez enjoys military support for his constitutional and reform efforts, and they have often been key to implementing even his domestic agenda.
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  3. For the Venezuelan case of neoliberalism from its advocates see: Moses Naim, Paper Tigers and Minotaurs: The Politics of Venezuela's Economic Reforms (Washington: The Carnegie Endowment, 1993); Michael Enright, Antonio Frances and Edith Saavedra, Venezuela: The Challenge of Competitiveness (New York: St. Martin's Press).
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  4. The data here and below draws on: Economist Intelligence Unit, Country Profile 2005: Venezuela (London: EIU, 2004); World Markets Research Centre, Country Report: Venezuela (London: WMRC, 2004).
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  5. See Fernando Coronil's remarkable book The Magical State: Nature, Money and Modernity in Venezuela (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997).
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  6. See Economic Commission for Latin American, Social Panorama, 2002-2003 (New York: United Nations 2004); Miguel Szekely and Marianne Hilgert, "The 1990s in Latin America: Another Decade of Persistent Inequality," Inter-American Development Bank, Working Paper #410 (1999).
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  7. See the insightful discussions in: Marta Harnecker, "After the Referendum: Venezuela Faces New Challenges," Monthly Review (November 2004); Steve Ellner, "Leftist Goals and the Debate over Anti-Neoliberal Strategy in Latin America," Science and Society, 68:1 (2004); Marta Harnecker, "On Leftist Strategy," Science and Society, forthcoming.
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  8. For some discussion of imperialist strategies of attrition see: Sohan Sharma, Sue Tracy and Surinder Kim, "Venezuela—Ripe for U.S. Intervention?" Race and Class, 45: 4 (2004).
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  9. A point on the bureaucratic impasse implicitly made by academic sympathizers with the Opposition: Francisco Monaldi, et al., "Political Institutions, Policymaking Processes, and Policy Outcomes in Venezuela," Inter-American Development Bank, Draft Research Papers (2004), at http://www.iadb.org/res/
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  10. Jonah Gindin, "Possible Faces of Venezuelan Democracy," September 2004.
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Greg Albo is a professor in the Department of Political Science at York University in Toronto

ATC 113, November-December 2004