Analysing the Bolivarian revolution
[Hugo Chavez's speech at the swearing-in of his new Cabinet earlier this week continues to arouse comment across the net, and this report on the BBC is typical of the coverage in the mainstream media.
The major weakness of the BBC article is a failure to explain the backdrop to Chavez's plans for renationalisation. Reading the BBC and other mainstream sources, one gets the impression that Chavez is a semi-benevolent dictator leading a revolution from above on the basis of a series of whims.
In reality, measures like the renationalisation of CANTV, the relecommunications giant which is partly US-owned and listed on Wall Street, have been demanded for months or years by Venezuela's trade unions. CANTV's privatisation in the 1990s was extremely unpopular, and its employees have been outraged by the company's failure to bring their pension plan into line with boosts in the minimum wage under the Chavez administration. They have been actively campaigning for nationalisation for years.
Chavez's move to the left therefore has to be understood as a response to calls from the grassroots of the Bolivarian revolution. There is a dialectical process at work whereby the demands of the grassroots are answered at the top, and the grassroots becomes more radicalised and confident because of its victories. It is important, then, not to reduce the Bolivarian revolution to Hugo Chavez.
Reproduced below is a paper I wrote late in 2005, in an effort to place the Bolivarian revolution in some sort of historical and social context. I meant to give the paper at a sociology conference, but had to drop out at the last minute when I went down with strep throat and lost my voice. The text was eventually published in the journal Red and Green.]
After the End of History: Notes on the Origins and Development of Venezuela’s Bolivarian Revolution
Introduction: Why Venezuela, and why Chavez?
Eight years ago the New Zealand Herald carried an article by Gwynne Dyer, the widely syndicated commentator on international affairs, which surveyed different parts of the post-Cold War world, and ventured a few predictions. ‘Latin America’, Dyer announced, ‘is becoming a place where nothing ever happens’. Dyer could perhaps be forgiven this claim – he was, after all, writing in the 1990s, the decade that had seen the end of the Cold War and a widespread belief that, as Francis Fukuyama put it, history had ended, with US-style liberal capitalism becoming established as the only viable economic and political model for the Third as well as the First World.
For Latin Americans, the 1990s were the decade of the ‘Washington consensus’, which saw governments rushing to deregulate economies and establish better economic and political ties with their powerful northern neighbour. The guerrilla insurgencies of the 1980s disappeared, trade union membership collapsed, and left-wing parties moved sharply to the right. In Cuba, the one radical government left in the hemisphere was fighting for survival. The social conflict and political instability for which Latin America had long been famous seemed a thing of the past.
Today, though, no commentator would dare repeat Dyer’s judgement. In Latin America the first years of the twenty-first century have seen a widespread repudiation of the Washington Consensus, and a revival of the social conflicts that had seemed to be disappearing in the 1990s. In Ecuador, Argentina, and Bolivia governments have been toppled by mass protest; in Brazil President Lula de Silva confronts huge land occupations and a strike wave; in Peru and the Dominican Republic governments have barely survived bloody general strikes; and Haiti simmers under a US-led military occupation. This year’s Summit of the Americas symbolised the new mood on the continent, as huge crowds joined Diego Maradona in Argentina’s Mar del Plata to denounce US foreign policy and neo-liberal economics. Gwynn Dyer was definitely wrong.
Yet the tumult of the last few years has not led to significant social and economic changes across Latin America. The new governments which have emerged from insurrections and elections have all too often taken only tentative steps away from the hated ‘Washington Consensus’. Some, like the regime of Lucio Gutierrez in Ecuador, have been abandoned by their own disappointed supporters, and thrown back out of office. Others hold on to office but argue against fundamental changes to the paradigm laid down in the 1990s.
There is only one Latin American country where a government is pursuing a programme of radical left-wing reforms, measures which undo the legacy of the ‘90s. This country is, of course, Venezuela, which under the leadership of Hugo Chavez has experienced sweeping land reform, the massive expansion of health and education services, the nationalisation of key parts of its economy, and experiments in worker-control of industry and other types of direct democracy. Along with an increasingly anti-American foreign policy, these reforms have made Chavez a hero of the Latin American left. The excitement which Venezuela’s ‘Bolivarian revolution’ has caused was shown by the rapturous reception Chavez got from the protesters gathered at the Americas Summit. Where other leaders were booed and jeered, Chavez was wildly applauded.
Gwynn Dyer can certainly be forgiven for not foreseeing the Bolivarian revolution and the fame of Chavez when he looked into his crystal ball back in 1997. It’s doubtful whether the most prescient commentator could have predicted the path Venezuela has taken over the past few years. For most of the second half of the twentieth century the country was regarded by observers on the left as something of a backwater, and by the right as an exceptional nation, an island of calm in the turbulent sea of Latin American politics. And who would have imagined that a military man like Chavez would have emerged as the leader of a radical left-wing government? In Latin American history, the military figures again and again as a gravedigger for left-wing governments.
Where can we turn for answers to the riddle that that is Chavez and the Bolivarian revolution? There is a very large amount of writing in English about the Bolivarian revolution, but a lot of this literature is intended for essentially agitational purposes, and thus tends to be descriptive rather than analytical. The relatively small amount of analytical writing that thinkers of the left have produced on the subject has tended to be disappointingly abstract. All too often Marxists and other left-wing commentators have begun, not by exploring the peculiarities of Venezuelan history and society, but by assimilating the Bolivarian revolution to a pre-existing explanatory model based on the experience of some other society. Historical comparisons have flowed thick and fast: Chavez has been a Peron, a Kerensky, a Castro, and a Lenin, and Venezuela has been Russia, Cuba, Nicaragua, Portugal and a dozen other countries – everywhere, it seems, except Venezuela.
There is a surprisingly large body of English-language academic writing about recent Venezuelan history, but this has been almost completely ignored by leftists trying to understand the Bolivarian revolution. There are obvious reasons for this neglect: the academic literature is often dry and highly detailed, and just as often motivated not by sympathy with the ideas of the left so much as a desire to explain and help rectify Venezuela’s departure from the blueprint of the Washington Consensus. This literature is nevertheless an invaluable, perhaps even indispensable, source of information on Venezuelan society and politics, and on the rise of Chavez to power in the 1990s. While researching and writing this paper I have tried to bring Marxist concepts to the interpretation of the wealth of conjunctural detail in the academic literature on modern Venezuela.
The making of a Petro-state
Venezuela was the site of the first Spanish settlement in Latin America, and became independent in 1811 as a result of an armed struggle led by Simon Bolivar, who has been a national hero ever since. From the beginning, Venezuela’s economy has been based around the export of primary products. In the nineteenth century, cacao and coffee were shipped to Europe. In the second decade of the twentieth century oil joined the exports, and by the 1940s it had become the mainstay of the economy. Venezuela’s oil industry was set up by foreigners and was for a long time run by foreigners. The Venezuelan capitalist class was largely agricultural, and lacked both the capital and the technocracy to exploit their country’s richest resource. In its first decades, the oil industry was able to operate almost unregulated, and pay almost no royalties to the state.
It was not until 1942, when the United States was preoccupied by war and hungry for fuel, that oil companies agreed to pay substantial royalties and submit to regulation. Their hand was forced by a national strike called by the country’s emerging trade union movement. The events of 1942 presaged a relationship that would be institutionalised after 1958, the year that a military coup and a popular uprising overthrew the dictator Marcos Perez Jimenez and ushered in what has become known as the ‘Punto Fijo’ era.
Punto Fijo was based around a set of implicit agreements between the foreign-owned oil industry, the Venezuelan capitalist class, organised labour, and the moderate left. Foreign companies were allowed to continue to dominate the oil industry, in return for increasing the royalties they paid to the Venezuelan state. The state was used to distribute wealth to the various factions of the indigenous capitalist class. As it expanded from its base in agriculture, Venezuela’s capitalist class became ever more dependent on the country’s oil wealth and on the state as a means of accessing and using that wealth. Terry Lynn Karl points out that the Venezuelan state ‘[H]ad the power to distribute raw materials, grant tariff exemptions and subsidies, finance private firms, set price controls, and decide who might enter an industry.’
The state was also used to distribute wealth to a variety of other groups in Venezuelan society. The strength of the trade unions, and the role they had played in the struggle of 1942 and the revolution of 1958, meant that that their leadership was able to secure various rewards from the state, in return for supporting the status quo. Some of these rewards were distributed universally - as subsidies for necessities like food and fuel, for instance. Others were awarded to smaller groups, via agents near the top of the trade union hierarchy.
In the Punto Fijo system, elections were important mechanisms by which the exact distribution of oil revenue was determined. Throughout the Punto Fijo era elections were dominated by two large parties, Accion Democracia and the Social Christian Party, or COPEI. Over time, these parties came to champion very similar policies, and to represent similar bases. (Accion Democracia had its first base in the trade union movement, but soon attracted wider backing, and for its part COPEI eventually enjoyed the backing of some trade unions as well as large parts of the Venezuelan capitalist class.) What separated the parties were not ideological or social differences, but different clientelist networks. Kenneth M Roberts called Punto Fijo politics ‘a struggle for power between competing machines that possessed alternative networks of individual and collective clienteles’.
The Punto Fijo system was inclusive of a much wider range of the population than similar pacts in other South American countries, but it nevertheless had sharp limits. Venezuela’s peasantry and low-paid urban working class saw few benefits from the country’s oil wealth, and were largely ignored by the big parties. Venezuela’s poor were overwhelmingly black, Indian and ‘mestizo’ – mixed race – while its political and economic elite was overwhelmingly white. The country’s large Communist Party, which might have mobilised the excluded, isolated itself by rejecting the Punto Fijo system outright and waging a heroic but disastrous guerrilla war in the country’s jungles and hills.
Terry Lynn Karl has called Venezuela a ‘petro-state’, and likened it to Algeria, Iran, and Nigeria. For Karl, these nations share important characteristics:
Petro-states are characterised by extreme dependence on a leading sector that is highly capital-intensive, depletable, and capable of generating especially high rents; moreover, these rents accrue directly to the state...The origin of the weak capacities of petro-states lies in the coincidence of their state formation with the coming of the oil companies...Because oil rents were captured by the state, the standard operating procedure defining the behaviour of organised interests in oil-producing countries was the exploitation of political influence for economic gain. Put simply, the state became the single most important object of predation for both capital and labour
Unlike the other petro-states Karl names, Punto Fijo Venezuela maintained a bourgeois democratic system of government. During the Punto Fijo era there were seven reasonably orderly Presidential elections, and four of these elections led to changes of government. The bourgeois democratic nature of the Punto Fijo era is an important factor in Venezuelan history.
A Petro-state in Crisis
The 1970s marked both the golden age and the beginning of the end of the Punto Fijo system. The oil boom of that decade massively increased state revenue and spending – in 1974 alone, the budget tripled in size; from 1973 to 1989 it increased twenty-one times. But successive governments failed to spend the bonanza well – huge sums were lost to corruption, unproductive prestige projects, and poorly planned industrial developments that soon became white elephants. Imports, especially food imports, rose sharply, and the agriculture sector continued the decline that had coincided with the rise of the oil industry. When the oil boom ended in the 1980s, successive governments resorted to borrowing on a massive scale to maintain spending levels.
At the end of the 1980s, the government of Carlos Andrez Perez decided to implement a package of reforms suggested by the International Monetary Fund - reforms that involved deep cuts in government spending. In February 1989 anger at the effects of these cuts was expressed in the ‘Caracazo’, a nationwide outbreak of rioting and looting which only ended when the state security forces went into the working class suburbs of Caracas and other big cities and killed thousands of people. Such a tragedy would have been unthinkable ten years earlier, when Venezuela was being hailed as a beacon of democracy in a continent dominated by military dictatorships.
The Vacuum of the 1990s
In the years after the Caracazo, a profound vacuum opened up in Venezuelan society, as the organisations and institutions associated with the Punto Fijo era slowly imploded. The two major parties went into decline, and the mainstream trade unions haemorrhaged members. Sharply rising poverty drove much of the population into the ‘informal’ sector of the economy. Polls showed very low levels of confidence in politicians, and when the military staged two unsuccessful coups in 1992 much of the country applauded. When veteran politician Rafael Caldera won the 1994 Presidential elections, he did so by leaving the Accion Democracia party and running on a populist, anti-austerity campaign. But Caldera was unable to strike out in a new direction, and eventually revived the neo-liberal programme of the hated Perez government.
What caused the extraordinary vacuum of the 1990s? Obviously, any answer must refer to the economic catastrophe that has befallen Venezuela. Between 1984 and 1993, the proportion of the population living below the poverty line increased from 36% to 62%. In 1996, real industrial wages stood at only 40% of their 1980 level. But economics alone cannot explain the implosion of so many key political organisations and institutions. Other Latin American countries have in recent times suffered even worse economic crises, without knowing the vacuum seen in Venezuela in the 1990s. Argentina, for instance, suffered cataclysmic declines in living standards through the 1990s and into the first years of the twenty-first century, after successive governments oversaw IMF-sponsored policies. Today, though, the Peronist party which unleashed those reforms is back in power, and retains its base in the country’s working class and trade union movement. By contrast, Venezuela’s two old establishment parties have faded from the political scene.
The vacuum of the 1990s must be explained with reference to the peculiarities of Venezuelan society and history, peculiarities that were reflected in the Punto Fijo system. Under Punto Fijo, politics became almost completely instrumentalised. Political organisations were valued not for ideological reasons, but because of the rewards they could deliver their supporters and patrons. Roberts points out that
“[C]orporatist and clientelist networks crowded out other types of bonds between parties and their constituencies, leaving political representation contingent on highly instrumental forms of attachment”. Once they could not deliver concrete short-term benefits to their supporters, the two main political parties had little to offer. Their lack of ideological pulling power prevented them from successfully selling neo-liberal austerity to Venezuelans.
Another cause of the vacuum of the ‘90s was the failure of the Punto Fijo system to establish mechanisms for incorporating those Venezuelans left outside the economic mainstream into the political mainstream. Without important links to the trade unions and the two main parties, the small peasantry and the swelling populations of the urban shantytowns were largely ignored by Punto Fijo politics. No populist party emerged to organise them and distribute patronage amongst them, as Peron’s party had done amongst Argentina’s poor. The steady growth of the ‘informal’ economy through the 1980s and ‘90s thus took more and more Venezuelans outside the political as well as the economic mainstream.
The rise of Chavez
Hugo Chavez, of course, is the man who emerged from the vacuum of the 1990s. The long-time leader of a faction of progressive army officers, he became famous when he appeared on television to take responsibility for the first of the 1992 coups. Chavez was released from prison in 1996, and two years later he easily won the Presidency after campaigning on the promise of radical democratic reform and the drafting of a new, ‘Bolivarian’ constitution.
Why was Chavez the man who was able to fill the vacuum of the ‘90s? How could a coup-plotting military officer be elected President on a platform that promised the renovation of democracy? There is a limited history of left-wing military leaders in Latin America – in the 1970s, for instance, Chavez had admired Peru’s Juan Velasco, who instituted a land reform programme, and Panama’s Omar Torrijos, who stood up to the US over its Canal Zone. But both Torrijos and Velasco were autocratic figures who took power in coups. It is difficult to find any precedent for a military man winning an election on a platform like the one Chavez ran on in 1998.
To understand the anomaly of Chavez we must again look carefully at the peculiarities of Venezuelan society, and in particular at the peculiar heritage of the Punto Fijo era. The Punto Fijo system had established the state as the mechanism for the distribution of wealth, and democracy as the mechanism which determined the exact pattern of this distribution. For this reason, most Venezuelans held very favourable attitudes towards the state, and towards democracy. Many believed that the crises of the 1980s and ‘90s were caused not by basic economic problems but by mismanagement of the state and distortions of the democratic system. Corruption and excessive centralisation of power were particular bugbears. For many Venezuelans, a programme promising the cleanup of democracy had considerable appeal, because it was seen as opening up the possibility of new economic rewards from the state, after the travails of the 1990s.
Why, though, was Chavez, a man who had tried to circumvent democracy altogether with his 1992 coup, able to present himself as a credible agent of democratic reform? To answer this question we must remember that the army was virtually the only part of the Venezuelan state that had survived into the 1990s with its credibility mostly intact. The army was not seen as tainted by the runaway corruption that helped discredit the civilian politicians of Accion Democracia and COPEI.
Venezuelans also remembered the vital role that the army had played in the 1958 revolution that overthrew the hated Jimenez and established democracy in their country. The army drew most of its rank and file members, and a very considerable section of its officer corps, from the lower classes, and it had a relatively liberal and intellectual internal culture. Officers like Chavez had been sent by the army to university, where many inevitably encountered liberal and Marxist ideas.
We can see, then, why Venezuelans did not view their army as a force hostile to democracy. On the contrary, many interpreted the 1992 coups as attempts to salvage a democracy being degraded by corrupt civilian politicians. Anibal Romero has presented poll figures from 1992 which show that many Venezuelans who supported democracy also supported Chavez’s coup.
Part Two: The Development of the Bolivarian Revolution
The ‘Bolivarian revolution’ which began with the election of the Chavez government in December 1998 has so far had three distinct phases. The first phase lasted until November 2001, and was dominated by the creation of a new ‘Bolivarian’ constitution. The elected Constituent Assembly which drew up this constitution consisted almost exclusively of Chavez supporters, but it did not succeed in producing a very coherent document. The constitution talked a great deal about ‘equality’ and ‘solidarity’, but it did not make it clear how these ends might be achieved. The document’s guarantees of private property rights appeared to contradict its talk of economic justice and land reform.
The confusion of the Bolivarian constitution reflects the confusion of Chavez’s policies at the beginning of his presidency. Chavez had frequently denounced the Punto Fijo system, but he seems to have been intent on reviving it in some new form, by seeking a new social pact that would binding a fractious society together under his leadership. He was initially conciliatory towards the country’s political elite, and even retained the Finance Minister of the outgoing Caldera government in his first cabinet.
The Land Law introduced to the National Assembly in 2000 symbolises the class collaborationist path the Chavez government at first tried to tread. The law allowed for the creation of an agency, the National Institute of Land (INTI), which would mediate disputes between Venezuela’s landless peasants and its large landowners. Only idle land on estates of over 5,000 acres could be redistributed to peasants, and proper compensation had to be paid to landowners. The Land Law disappointed some of Chavez’s peasant supporters, but it also infuriated the opposition parties that represented the Venezuelan bourgeoisie. After opposition legislators blocked the Land Law and a raft of other mildly reformist pieces of legislation in the National Assembly, Chavez used presidential decrees to push them into law in November 2001. Chavez’s decrees radicalised the opposition, and launched the second phase of the Bolivarian revolution, a phase which was dominated by a titanic struggle between the opposition and Chavez’s supporters.
Why did the opposition of the Venezuelan bourgeoisie to Chavez take such an aggressive form, when his initial reforms had a relatively mild character? To answer this question we must remember the peculiarities that the Punto Fijo era bequeathed to twenty-first century Venezuelan society. Punto Fijo had made the Venezuelan bourgeoisie exceptionally dependent upon the state for its survival and prosperity. Faced with the loss of state power to a man outside the old political elite and its networks of patronage, the bourgeoisie panicked. The bourgeoisie’s weakness made it oppose Chavez strongly.
Building Constituent Power
The second phase of the Bolivarian revolution lasted from November 2001 to the end of 2004, and was dominated by the struggle between Chavez’s supporters and the opposition. In April 2002 opposition supporters staged a coup which deposed Chavez for forty-eight hours. From December 2002 until March 2003, the opposition organised a national lockout, which almost brought the economy to a halt. When the lockout collapsed, many businesses faced bankruptcy. Chavez was able to purge the pro-opposition management of the powerful, semi-autonomous state oil company, and bring it under the firm control of his administration. In 2004, the opposition forced Chavez to hold a recall referendum, which he won easily. Pro-Chavez candidates followed this victory with a sweep of the October 2004 state and municipal elections.
Chavez was only able to defeat these threats to his rule by allowing organisational, institutional, and ideological changes to the movement and government he led. At the end of 2001, Chavez was, despite his immense popularity with the poor, an isolated figure – he had been deserted by many of his old allies from the military, and he lacked mechanisms for mobilising his huge voting base. Looking back, he would remember that:
I was the President, and yet I found myself isolated…The High Court, the judges, the state bureaucracy, the directors of PDVSA [the state oil company], the capitalists, big landowners, the ‘middle class’, the press, the Church, and the most powerful world leaders were all in opposition. So how were this isolation and this hostility to our programme to be overcome? …[B]y placing our confidence in constituent power
Early experiments in building ‘constituent power’ included the Bolivarian Circles, which organised government supporters in the shantytowns of the big cities. The Bolivarian Circles put millions of people on the streets to defeat the coup of 2002. The Circles had their counterparts in the numerous peasants’ associations that were formed to champion and extend Chavez’s Land Law. 2002 saw the first conference of the National Organisation of Workers (UNT), which was founded by trade unionists angry at the anti-Chavez line of the leadership of the old Federation of Workers (CTV). UNT members defeated the opposition lockout by occupying and managing their own workplaces, and thus keeping the economy alive.
The Bolivarian Circles, peasants’ associations and UNT all overlapped to some extent with Chavez’s own party, the Fifth Republic Movement (MVR), which after 2002 was transformed from an electoral ticket to a mass organisation. By the end of 2004, the MVR estimated it had two million members. The party showed it had a lively internal life by organising primaries for that year’s state and municipal elections. The MVR has combined forces with half a dozen smaller parties to form a governing coalition called the Alliance for Change.
Organisational changes in the Bolivarian movement were matched by institutional changes inside the Venezuelan state. Frustrated by the resistance of bureaucrats in state ministries to its social programmes, the government created a series of new ministries, or ‘Misiones’, to ‘go around’ the old state. The Misiones seek to bypass much of the old bureaucracy by mobilising the government’s grassroots supporters to administer the delivery of social services. America Vera-Zavala, a Romanian economist living in Caracas, has described the ‘country of parallels’ the Misiones have helped create:
If the health sector in the country is not willing to serve poor people - the President creates a parallel, brings in hundreds of Cuban doctors and lets them work. If the educational sector is working poorly and apparently has not been fighting illiteracy - he creates a parallel, develops education programs and makes the communities responsible for their functioning. If the shops are not selling affordable food - he creates a parallel, creates subsidised shops, and if people are still going hungry - he creates another parallel, provide food and make the communities responsible for cooking and sharing the meals. And the parallels are working - soon illiteracy will be exterminated. The left-wing theory of creating parallel powers to break down and end the old order is here taken to new breathtaking heights.
Ideological changes coincided with organisational and institutional changes. Fierce clashes with the opposition diminished Chavez’s faith in the possibility of constructing a Punto Fijo-like pact between classes. Increasingly, Chavez and key members of his government adopted the language of class struggle, rather than class compromise. During the bitter recall referendum campaign, Chavez pronounced himself a socialist for the first time. He has regularly repeated this declaration, and has taken to quoting Marx, Trotsky, and Mao in his speeches.
Onto the Offensive
A third, ongoing phase in the Bolivarian revolution can be said to have begun after the crushing electoral victories over the opposition at the end of 2004. With the government it supports relatively secure politically, and bolstered economically by a sharp rise in the price of oil, the increasingly organised Bolivarian movement has gone onto the offensive; in response, Chavez has pursued the policies adopted during the second phase of the revolution more aggressively. 2005 has seen the first expropriations of factories and farms, experiments in co-management at a number of state-owned businesses, big increases in the budget of the Misiones, and the creation of new ‘Communal Councils’ that aim to develop the Bolivarian Circles and similar organisations into organs of local government.
All of these measures have been linked to an ‘Endogenous Development Strategy’ proclaimed at the beginning of 2005 by Chavez. The Endogenous Development Strategy seeks to lessen dependency on oil by promoting the growth and diversification of the rest of the economy. A key plank of the strategy is import substitution. In the countryside, huge areas of formerly-idle land are being redistributed to peasants who will actually farm it, and thus, the government hopes, help the country escape its dependency on food imports. Peasant co-ops and in some cases collective farms help achieve efficiencies of scale, and interest-free micro credit piped from the government’s oil revenue finances the buying of labour-saving devices like tractors.
Hundreds of factories are being reopened, often under a system of co-management between their workforce and the state, and are being integrated into the Endogenous Development Strategy. Venepal, the timber mill in the town of Moron which became famous as the first factory to be nationalised under co-management early in 2005, is now producing paper not for export but for the textbooks used in the new schools being opened under the Misione Robinson literacy drive. The timber for the paper comes from Venezuelan plantations, and the state guarantees the purchase of the paper. It is hoped that under co-management the mill will see increases in productivity and efficiency.
The Leader and the Base
The second and third phases of the Bolivarian revolution have demonstrated the complex dialectical relationship between Chavez and his supporters in the working class and peasantry: the more Chavez has relied on these forces to defend his government, the bolder they have become in advancing their own demands. The Venezuelan opposition frequently characterises Chavez as a dictator, for whom the Bolivarian revolutionary movement is a pliant tool. Some pro-government commentators have gone to the opposite extreme, and presented Chavez as a simple instrument of the will of the Venezuelan masses. The truth is more complex than either view will allow.
Chavez is no Peron, sitting at the top of a pyramidal autocracy. He owes his considerable personal power to the very diversity and disunity of the Bolivarian movement. He can best be understood as an arbiter of the numerous factions of this movement. Chavez is not a leader who stakes out detailed positions particular issues, and develops the finer points of policy. Most of the political concepts he uses are designed only to set certain limits to interpretation and debate – they have what we might call a strategic ambiguity. The concept ‘Bolivarian’, for example, evinces certain strong connotations – national pride and independence, for instance – but allows many different interpretations.
In the space of a few years, Chavez has moved from identifying his ‘Bolivarian revolution’ with fiscal conservatism to equating it with practices like large-scale nationalisation and co-management in industry. The Bolivarian Constitution gave Chavez new powers as President, but the mobilisation of his supporters and Venezuela’s federalist system of government both act as counters to this power.
An examination of the process of land reform brings out the complex, dialectic nature of the relationship between Chavez and his base. Though many of them were disappointed with the relatively moderate nature of Chavez’s Land Law, peasants nevertheless organised to campaign for its implementation. Peasants’ organisations also mobilised to defend Chavez from the coup attempt of April 2002. After helping save the government and the Land Law, they began occupying idle land, in a bid to speed up its redistribution. Many peasants became fiercely critical of the INTI, which they considered bureaucratic and biased towards large landowners. Outraged by the peasants’ militancy, landowners began organising squads of thugs to attack squatters and assassinate peasant leaders.
The conflict in the countryside exacerbated the bitterness of the 2002-2003 lockout and the recall referendum of 2004, and pushed the Chavez government into making more aggressive statements about the need for land reform. On the campaign trail in 2004, Chavez called for the first time for a ‘war on the latifundia’. After winning the referendum, he supported a push by pro-peasant members of the National Assembly to strengthen the provisions of the Land Law. Landowners responded with new armed attacks, and in July 2005 six thousand peasants travelled to Caracas to demand tougher action against the latifundia and their armed agents. In turn, the Venezuelan government stepped up its campaign of expropriations against landowners, declaring that it wanted to take three and a half million hectares of land before Christmas 2005. Venezuela’s federalist system of government has meant that in many cases radical pro-Chavez state governors have been able to take the lead in organising expropriations, using the National Guard to occupy farms.
The case of land reform and Chavez’s peasant supporters shows us how, in the space of seven years, passive electoral support for a populist leader with a minimal reform programme has turned into a revolution powered by the interaction of grassroots mobilisation and the state.
Bolivarian Foreign Policy
The development of the Chavez government’s foreign policy has mirrored the development of its domestic policies. In his first years in power Chavez went out of his way to court the United States, and to present a moderate image on the world stage. After the US government sided with the plotters of the April 2002 coup, though, Chavez developed a new policy, based around the construction of alliances designed to counter American influence over Venezuela’s economy and political scene. Close economic ties have been established with Iran and China, and the Bolivarian Alternative for Latin America and the Caribbean (ALBA) has been established to foster economic co-operation between Latin American states opposed to the US’s push for a free trade zone. Venezuela has been a very active member of OPEC, helping enforce pumping restrictions which have been one of the causes of the rise in oil prices in recent years.
In addition to pushing for new economic alliances, Chavez has gone out of his way to offer praise and political support to a variety of governments alienated from the US, including the Iranian regime and Robert Mugabe’s government in Zimbabwe. This ‘Third Worldist’ policy can be seen as an international version of the politics of collaboration with a ‘patriotic’ bourgeoisie that Chavez pursued unsuccessfully in his first years in office. Since then, of course, the Venezuelan government has largely stopped trying to appease its critics in the bourgeoisie, and made the working class and peasantry its strong allies.
Recently, calls for the development of a foreign policy more in tune with the ‘left turn’ witnessed at home have come from important parts of the Bolivarian movement. For instance, Fedepetrol, the oil workers’ union and an affiliate of the UNT, was highly critical of Chavez’s recent decision to sell oil to Ecuador’s government, after that government’s refineries had been put out of action by strikes and indigenous protesters. Fedepetrol said Venezuela should have sided with the protesters, rather than helping to bail the Ecuadorian government out. It was largely due to the UNT’s prompting that Caracas recently hosted a conference of representatives from ‘reclaimed’ factories from around the world. Chavez addressed the conference and gave it his support, yet it included representatives from Argentina, whose leader Kirchner is both a close ally of the Venezuelan government and a violent opponent of the reclaimed factory movement. The contradictions in Venezuela’s foreign policy remain unresolved.
Time for Discussion
It would be foolish to lose sight of the limits of the Bolivarian revolution's transformation of Venezuelan society. Capitalism has not been abolished in Venezuela - most of the economy, including the finance sector and the powerful media sector, is still in private hands, and foreign companies operate throughout the country under various concessionary schemes. The parties of the opposition have been marginalised after repeated electoral defeats, but some of their arguments have been taken up inside the Bolivarian movement, as a 'Bolivarian bureaucracy' seeks to derail plans for further radical change.
Even within the Chavez government, there are sharp arguments about the desirability of extending the experiments in co-management and nationalisation to the whole economy. The exact shape which policies like the Endogenous Development Strategy and institutions like the Misiones take is being contested by the various factions of the Bolivarian movement. It would be wrong to try to analyse this ongoing struggle in too much detail, when so much of it is still obscure, even to the most attentive reader of translated documents. This article is intended not as the final word on the unfinished revolution in Venezuela, but as an attempt to begin a discussion which puts the events of this revolution in a Venezuelan context, without abandoning the use of Marxist concepts.