Review of "Rethinking Venezuelan Politics: Class, Conflict, and the Chavez Phenomenon"

Rethinking Venezuelan Politics: Class, Conflict, and the Chavez Phenomenon by Steve Ellner combines bottom up Venezuelan history with institutional analysis that shows that the components of Chavez’s policies are long-standing and endogenous to Venezuelan politics. By highlighting this common thread, Ellner shows how Chavez Frias doesn’t represent a break, but a continuation of various struggles. Additionally, he does this through the framework which states that beneficial social change is such that political movements best serve the people by combining to achieve four goals” as opposed to one or two of them to the exclusion of others.” These goals are  “(1) the struggle for social justice; (2) the struggle for democracy; (3) the effort to promote national economic development; and (4) the adoption of economic and political nationalism.” From this vantage point he is able to access the relative success or failure of the Chavista project.

Following the military and AD supported coup against Medina Angarita, presumably for not passing democratic legislation fast enough, began the period known as the trieno, which from 1945-1947 was characterized by rule of a seven person Revolutionary Junta that was charged with the transition to democracy. This was a period of intense political conflict between the four major parties AC, PCV, COPEI and URD with the first two as the major protagonists. Ellner describes the reason for the coup, which was supported by members of the United States Defense Department, as growing fear of the possibilities unleashed by fear of an increasingly radicalization that could lead lead to a militant Communist takeover.  Open conflict between the groups led to another military coup, by Marcus Perez Jiminez, that had nationalist policies such as the subsidies for new states companies and elaborate development plants, but was repressive against the very real possibility of a leftist takeover. Considering Venezuela’s role as oil exporter to the United States in the Cold War context and the CIA’s role in creating social chance in Arbenz’s Guatemala, this could be seen as the manifestation of a desire to be free of stronger American influence. Regardless of why, the political assassinations and non-democratic rule united the formerly antagonistic parties together to form the Junta Patriotica to overthrow Jimenez.

This was not, however, the only overthrow. The AD moderates, with increased access ability to get financial support from business interests, were able to gain control of the party, to impose strict ideological restrictions and expel various groups as being “too radical”. They kept up the classification of the PCV as an illegal group and following their legalization in 1958 were allowed on the ballot. While they represented a small percentage of the vote, their organizational force was key in various union movements and they were again outlawed by Romulo Betancourt.

The nationalization of the iron and oil industry happened in 1975 and 1976, while full employment for all Venezuelans was proclaimed as a basic social right in 1983 by the then not yet neo-liberal president Carlos Andres Perez. His populism, however was of a strictly elitist variety and he refrained from any sort of populist mobilization of political and community organizations. This organizational lacuna combined with large, unfulfilled expectations led to a disillusioned population and his replacement. The subsequent decade is also one of general dissatisfaction with the government. Disconnection of the party with the rank and file and the popular classes came from a social disconnect from the non-elites and this formed s preference for the needs and desires of the business class and groups such as FEDECAMARAS. This, combined with the new logic of the Washington Consensus, the need to repay IMF-backed projects which failed to adequately deal with the source of Venezuelan property (land reform, oil dependence), government negligence which allowed 244 bankers to leave the country with billions of dollars and the massive transfer of public funds into private hands as a result of botched currency policies made the immiseration which resulted from the neo-liberal policies especially harsh.

Following the policies of Chavez once he has taken power, we see how he started to turn back the decentralization policies that has decreased government efficiency and increased corruption, pushed forward the consideration and ratification of a new constitution and actively sought to incorporate marginalized communities into a sympathetic relationship with the government rather than the antagonistic one it once had. Ellner claims there are four steps in Chavez’s transition from a center-leftist to a “21st century socialist” and shows how this is a result of a series of attempts at his removal from political power by the domestic opposition backed by the United States and the maintenance of electoral power as a result of his constituents defending their elector. Also worth pointing out is that Chavez has taken a largely pragmatic approach to all of his nationalizations and even when dealing with occupied companies. Rather than simply seizing foreign owned properties and complexes, as a government is within it’s rights to do, it has forced sales such as to take the sting out of their ejection.

The various hard and soft line currents within the Chavista movement are parsed through, and some attention is even given to the marginal but influential Trotskyists such as Orlando Chirino. Ellner cites four major points of contention within the hard and soft liners – policy within the MVR party, the Chavista Labor movement, the state-run oil industry and what the role of parallel structures should be over time. On this last point, those familiar with the various debates centered around societal transformations emerging from parties or from social movements will find the chapters five through severn particularly compelling as Ellner presents Venezuela as consisting of a synthesis of the two. The party of the MVR is illustrated as being pushed forward, pulled back and dealing with rank and file radicalism that goes beyond it’s stated objectives. The grassroots/institutional dialectic presented by Ellner suggests syncretic models are better suited to understanding the developments in Venezuela rather than an either/or model.

The short assessment of Veneuela’s foreign policy reiterates what many other academics have stated and what American news commentators have not – that the foreign policies are logical extensions of Chavez’s desire to create a multi-polar world not organized solely around capitalist imperatives. Considering the limitations to uni-polar military interventions and IMF and World Bank style economic restructuring in such a world would have to the United States, the demonstration effect that his “socialistic” policies have makes it more understandable why it is that he was so thoroughly derided in American main stream media.

Review of "We Created Chavez: A People's History of the Venezuelan Revolution"

We Created Chavez: A People’s History of the Venezuelan Revolution by George Ciccariello-Maher is a bottom up approach to comprehending the still ongoing Venezuelan revolution. This is not a history of Chavez or the Venezuelan state, though they do of course make numerous appearances, but of the many social movements, radical unions, revolutionary organizations, as well as the indigenous, Afro-Venezuelan, women, barrio and students groups who have long organized and fought for the manifestation of their political will in the face of an oligarchic opposition long before Chavez. The purpose of the book is thus to re-orient discussions on Venezuela’s politics away from discussions about Chavez (is he an autocrat?! is he a populist?!) and turn towards the long history of actors and movements that first came to constitute his voting constituency and would later defend him from opposition attempts to buck the Bolivarian leadership. Such a horizontalist approach to understanding the power dynamics in Venezuela does not, however, exclude the vertical, institutional powers as many of those actors who in the sixties and seventies were fighting against the government would come to enter it under Chavez. More importantly, by highlighting their struggles the tensions embodied by the current government comes to the forefront and the myth of a charismatic leader “misleading” the people comes to be seen as the fiction it is.

One of the first, popularly misconceived notions which Cicarrielo-Maher seeks to dispute is the notion of Venezuela as an exceptional democracy following the death of Juan Vincente Gomez. The puntofijismo system dominated by Accion Democratica (AD) and COPEI was predicated on the institutional incorporation of all political organizations and the repression of those unwilling to be co-opted by it. Student and campesino organizations who in their mind over reached were expelled from positions of influence and repressed, with the latter class also facing losses of potential influence and power due to the huge demographic shift that saw urbanization quickly and steadily increase. Romulo Betancourt, via the influenced of the labor-leaders in the AFL-CIO, also began a a series of political expulsions of communists, socialists, and other radicals that would eventually form the Movimiento de la Izquerda Revolucionaria (MIR) and take up arms against the Venezuelan state. This was, of course, following the success of Castro in Cuba and unfortunately for the guerillas, they studied it not from the historical experiences in Cuba but through the lens of Debray and his notion of foquismo. The notion that this highly mobile band of avant-gardist fighters would be able to move around, sans connection to a peasant base led to movement alienation and inefficacy. With the initiation of a guerilla pacification and reintegration projects by the state, targeted assassination of leaders and their legal front counterparts (Cantaura y Yumare massacres), the guerilla movement dissipated. This does not mean, however, that they left no trace on subsequent politics. Their legacy of militancy lived on and, recognizing the failure of the guerillas, informed new activists to focus their studies on their own institutions rather than looking to outside examples of how to achieve political power.

Breaking from interviews with former guerilla leaders and movement activists, Ciccariello-Maher pauses to limn a series of qualitative political transformations – the 1989 Caracazo, Chavez’s 1992 coup attempt, the April 11th 2002 coup attempt and restoration of presidential power two days later, as well as the oil strike of 2002-2003 which present radical transformations of constituent and constituted power. The first two events are cited as evidence of the last gasps of the puntofijismo system. Government corruption and neoliberal reforms were not just rejected but the entire system of government. The latter two moments are presented as dialectic whereby the new state could either deepen or shirk it’s commitment to a radical transformation of Venezuelan society. The choice to strengthen the allies to the left, as Robespierre and Toussaint L’Ouverture did not, deepen the process of social, political and economic transformation but also brought to the forefront a new set of contradictions. Now that the new constitution was in place and changes to it were made in order to address the historical imbalances created by dependent development, tensions between the latifundistas and campesinos, informal and formal workers, were made more intense. Additionally, since many of the student radicals had left the universities in the 1980s in order to do community organizing (in a manner reminiscent of the Narodniks but here being welcomed), the student movement had turned to the right, creating several “events” that were miscontextualized within the international media.

The issue of the informal economy occupies another interesting aspect when dissecting the Bolivarian revolution. With the grow overcrowding, many Venezuelans reproduce through marginal, informal employment and have little representation. As a whole in Latin America unions aren’t powerful due in part to the extremely high number of people within the reserve army of labor. Incorporating these people into the government apparatus, despite their demonstrated allegiance to Chavez during the 2002 coup attempt, is difficult due to their marginality. Their lives are shown to be mediated through barrio culture (pueblo pequeno, inferno grande) and thus are tied to a politics of location yet the claim that these nomad workers are the most genuine product of capital’s global chaos and this possibly it’s most genuine gravediggers as well strikes me as one of the points at which I disagree with Ciccariello-Maher. While agreeing with his assessments of the dangers of excluding them from the revolutionary process and the assessment that the buhoneros y motorizados ought to receive some of the wealth coming from their lands oil, it seems as if there should be some attempts at integrating them into other modes of economic reproduction. Here, perhaps, is where the role of state as entrepreneur and investor in social capital could come into play. Given the book’s focus on movements rather than the state, however, not delving into the issue raised is not problematic but, as I believe Ciccariello-Maher intends to be a topic for further investigation and debate.

Another of the problematic issues with the deepening of the revolution and the dynamics of the state reaching down to groups that have typically been against the state rather than seeking merely to reform it results in a melange of variously oriented sects. Because of Ciccariello-Maher’s access to these people, the political actors speak for themselves, providing welcome understanding that while many are “for Chavez”, it is not absolute. They are critical followers and in reality more for “la processa” and are willing to act against him if necessary. This is most clear in the early exposition of the 23 de Enero barrio, but is a recurrent theme throughout. The willingness of the people to contest his rule or the opposition when necessary, in fact, is cited as one of the main reasons for the deepening of the revolution. The book closes with meditations on the dual power process being created in Venezuela and shows in reality Chavez, “el pueblo” and the new constitution are really empty signifiers being filled by Venezuelans. Their struggle to create a revolutionary society when there are still corrupt and reactionary elements in the government waiting to be unmasked and ejected is in contradistinction to the normal conception of “seizing power”. There is of course the further tensions between those on the anti-statist left, such Jesse Blanco, who see the loss of movement autonomy as a driving concern rather than the institutionalization of the movement. This is understandable given Venezuela’s political history, but those that have “reconciled themselves to institutional power see instead an increased pace of progressive change.

Addressing an issue raised by another reviewer of the book, in Todd Chretien’s review, he claims that Ciccariello-Maher doesn’t adequately define vanguardism. While there may not be a concise, positivist definition, the categorization of several groups under that heading shows the significance of it in the Venezuelan context. Ciccariello-Maher narrates how guerrilla groups, such as the Fuerzas Armadas de Liberacion Nacional and later the Partido de la Revolucion Venezuela and Bandera Rojas all entered into the 23 de Enero neighborhood and provoked conflict with the police and DISIP. The result of this engagement was to invoke massive repression not just against those involved with the group but the community members. As a result of growing disillusionment with these groups and the community support, they dispersed or faced organizational deterioration or transformation as they were no longer welcomed in as harbingers of positive community development. On the last potential for transformation we see that as a result of this guerrilla and pueblo encounter the growth of the Venezuelan Tupamaros (no relation to the Uruguayan Tupamaros, they were given this name by the police in order for “respectable” citizens to distance themselves from them), or armed community activists seeking to keep out the drug trade and self-police the community from ladrones y malandros. The avant-gardism, which Chretien correctly cites as a lingering top-down political orientation, thus has various attributes depending on the groups aims and tasks and is not limited to the list of groups just mentioned. As a concept, however, this is meant to highlight the leadership disconnection from the purported “base” of the struggles. This can be the prioritization of the urban struggle over the campesino struggle, the failure of guerillas to co-ordinate with non-explicitly socialist campesino groups, the prioritization of insurrection over the organization of barrio services, and the general lack of concern to the informal economy due to the use of dogmatic encrustations of Marxism related to the category of the lumpenproletariat.

Finally, for those interested in a presentation on the Bolivarian revolution in Venezuela by Ciccariello-Maher, check out this video on YouTube.

Review of "Dependency and Development in Latin America"

Dependency and Development in Latin America is former Brazilian president Fernando Henrique Cardoso and Enzo Faletto’s historical materialist account of the preconditions and conditions of economic development in Latin America. The preface and introduction flatly rejects a narrow empiricism and particularism and instead adopts a holistic, dialectical, historical-structural approach.

As subsequent historiography illustrates, the forms taken on by a dependency varied considerably based upon the social-political context, the goods available for export and the level of capital investment and social infrastructure required to extract them, the political capacity following the cessation of the war for independence as well as more mundane concerns such as terrain and communications capacity. Despite the centers incapacity to operate as the political power within the periphery, still exercised immense control as their productive capacities were in essence enclave economies. Put another way, peripheral economies were still dependent upon their former colonial masters to take in their exports, which was predominantly raw materials. Because their capital goods sector wasn’t usually not quantitatively large enough and they lacked a domestic market, the importation of capital intensive, manufactured goods continued. This coincidence of interests meant that in many ways that thought the wars of independence had been fought and won such that they were no longer under the thumb of the Iberian peninsula, the same manner of control was and dependence existed.

Dependent economies were at an additional disadvantage as the banking system had previously been administered by ejected colonial groups, making potential colonial capitalists at another disadvantage. Lacking access to European markets, reliant upon foreign bankers, unable to profitably exploit their own domestic market, accelerated urbanization with concomitant expectations for political liberalism and with a ruling class that often idealized and sought to imitate their former oppressors combined to create the conditions for social conflict. In the emphasis on the materiality of the countries in question, Cardoso seeks to undermine the facile notions proffered by modernization theorists such as W. W. Rostow which hold that the imposition of universalistic economic qualities on an economy can create development.

At such a point it’s worth noting that Cardoso highlights at several points the role of the bureaucracy. It’s various incarnations are worth discussing as a counterfactual to modernization theory’s economic “bridging” and as shortly following the books release the epoch of bureaucratic authoritarian regimes began. History illustrates that it is possible for a society to go through profound alterations in its system of production with the formation of a center for bureaucratic decision making. The creation of a “political sphere”, concomitant social institutions and the composition of character implies a level of complexity not alway existent. Following the nascent struggles, they are either able to serve their creator’s interests, the dominant route, act to benefit some lower class groups goals of (predominantly socialist or communist) development or able to blend the two within a nationalist sentiment. The various powers within this are tied to the level of capital development, however was already mentioned above in relation to the enclave economy of dependent countries, it is not just that there are times when large land-holders and domestic capitalists have an interest in policies that prioritize their maintenance of existing social relations despite the fact that a marginal adjustment might spark internal capitalist development – but that this is the default state of affairs.

The historical analysis which follows and provides examples of this is, as a relative neophyte to Latin American politics, admittedly beyond my scope. However I would not that Marjory Urquidi’s review of the book in The Hispanic American Historical Review, vol. 60 No 1, noted that while aspects of it could be problematized it was largely lacking any major flaws. What I am able to comment on is Kenneth Robbert’s quick dismissal of the purported datedness of Cardoso’s “socialist” language. From the previous analysis, and tellingly written at the beginning the “lost decade”, it is clear that given the capacity of the upper class to deal with financial burdens that it’s better in the long run for them to assist workers rather than resist their demands. Class conflict, like welfare and job training programs, both cost money but only one of them assists the capitalists once the opportunity presents itself.

Review of "The Revolution in Venezuela: Social and Political Change under Chávez"

The Revolution in Venezuela: Social and Political Change under Chávez is part of the David Rockefeller Center’s series on Latin American studies. Published by Harvard and and edited by Thomas Ponniah and Jonathan Eastwood, the book brings together eight academic articles about differen aspects of social, political and economic and change since the election of Chávez. While the articles are not in direct conversation with each other, the two major themes are analysis of “State & Society Relations” as well as an exposition of what “The Bolivarian Project” is in it’s aspirations and implementation.

Fernando Coronil’s article recounts the manner in which the 2002 coup attempt transpired, the coup within the coup, and how it is that the interpretation of the events of April 11-14th are a continuing source of dispute between those who support and those who oppose Chávez. Those familiar with Chavez: The Revolution Will Not Be Televised: A Case Study of Politics and the Media will find the content very familiar as both analyze the misrepresentation of the coup in the Venezuelan media and provide timelines of the actual events that ends in a massive manifestacion that compels the military elements of the coup to return him to power. The article does, however, contain some more information that the film does not. For instance, one of the more humorous moments in the retelling of the events of the 2002 coup attempt is the use of rhetoric by the opposition. One of the slogans for their march protesting the firing of an oil worker was “Ni un paso atrás” (Not one step back). By attempting to establish a kinship between their protest against Chávez, who was democratically elected, and Chilean democratic protestors against Pinochet, who killed the democratically elected president Salvador Allende and ruled as dictator, they show their inability to make valid historical analogies. Coronil additionally highlights the different responses to those killed during the march to restore Chavez to power and those that died during the Caracazo of 1989. During the latter conflict 399 were killed and the media minimized these numbers while in 2002 only 19 died, who were not of the opposition but Chavistas, and this was seen as cause for overthrowing the democratically elected government. After Pedro Carmona is illegally given power in a ceremony filled with white business owners and priests (Watch here), Carmona declares the reversing of many policies and the dismissal of the National Assembly. He then initiates a second coup happens, “a coup within the coup” causing the liberal and religious groups which had supported Carmona to become excluded from positions of power in the new government. His support quickly vanishes, especially as by this time Chavez has been able to get out the message that he has not signed any paperwork giving up the presidency and his supporters have started to surround Miraflores. Coronil closes the article by reflecting on how it is that these events, highly contested in their interpretations, have helped to increase the political polarization about topics related to Venezuelan politics.

Aptly following this is Javier Corrales rational choice model analysis of the advantage a left-center government like Chavez has in increasing political discourse polarization which also includes a historical framework with which to understand it. Since the traditional channels of political power disintegrated in the period leading to Chávez’s election in 1998, the divide within the opposition has lead to their adopting a two-fold approach to how the movement against him should continue. One faction has pushed for a strictly legal policy that seeks to wrest power through elections while another has sought to cause disruption of the normal economic and social relations to provoke repressions that delegitimize the government and pave the way for a new coup. Such an example of this is found in the 2002 U.S.- backed coup attempt and the state oil-company strike (PDVSA). Worth noting is that not only did these policies fail, but helped to consolidate the positive direction of those ambivalent towards Chávez as they recognized to not do so would be to risk falling under the authority of another military dictatorship. Corrales shows how the increasing sympathy for the government message in the face of such trenchant opposition gave fertile conditions for Chavez to turn left and reenergize his base by co-opting ambivalent sectors. Corrales shows how this policy combined worked in the RCTV case, the 2007 referendum and the 2008 election and shows how the electoral strategies by Chavez and oppositions can be explained within this polarization matrix.

Gregory Wilpert’s article Venezuela’s Experiment in Participatory Democracy describes the varied composition of the new Bolivarian republic. In a sentence, Bolivarianism seeks to supplement representative democratic institutions with participatory democratic ones. The manner in which this has been done has been to encourage the growth of parallel, democratic decision making institutions at various levels of government. In this article Wilpert describes these participatory democracy organs, their relationships to each other and their relationship the country’s representative democracy institutions. These organs, it is shown, helps to root out corruption, audit the activities of government bodies and generally works to better the country’s infrastructure and encourage a more democratic society.

Social Comptrol (Contraloria Social), Citizen Assemblies, Communal Councils (CC – Consejos Comunales), and Local Public Plannning Councils (CLPP – Consejos Locales de Planificacion Publica) make up most of the parallel institutions that helps manage the states dispersion of resources as well as helps create an vibrant democratic culture that is broader and more robust than that found within representative democracy. These groupings break down based upon location of function and have secondary structures above them that facilitate their functioning with that of the government. The reason for this instead of an enlightened paternalism on the part of the Chavez administration is fun in the “Elucidation of Reasons” that prefaces the fifth constitution. Here it states that “participation is no limited to electoral processes, since the need for intervention of the people is recognized in the process of formation, formulation and execution of public policy; which would result in the overcoming of the governability deficits that have affected our political system due to the lack of harmony between state and society” (102).

The LPCC’s and missions that have been created outside of official government oversight to bring democratic decision making principles to the manner in which funds taken from oil revenues are distributed has not been perfect. As can be expected from any sort of project, private or public, achieving a maximum of efficiency has been difficult and there are institutional political actors who would act to bring about their failure so as to gain personally from it. Despite this, the missions are viewed overwhelmingly positive by Venezuelans, so much so that their continuation has been promised even by members of the Chávez’ opposition.When looking at some of the figures, taken not just from the Bolivarian government but those such as the World Health Organization, it becomes understandable why this is so. As a result of Medical, Water and other missions, there have been a large decrease in the number of children that have died from eminently treatable conditions such as pneumonia, diarrhea,

Wilpert illustrates some of the structural resistance to these organs proper functioning and how some political events, such as the publishing of the Tascon list, can counter their stated intentions. His assessment of these organs, however flawed, matches that overwhelmingly positive view also held by a majority of native Venezuelans. These programs have reversed feeling of cynicism and political apathy and have helped to create a country that, according to polling, has the greatest faith in democracy as a political program in South America. These policies, he shows, counters the military management culture of Chavez by de-emphasizing personalism, presidentialism and the paternalism of state bureaucracy and are also, Wilpert also notes that it is the growth of these participatory democratic forms outside of the government that have caused NGO’s such as Freedom House to claim that the country is authoritarian – even though Chavez has no role in the promotion of proposals to be carried out by the state. Their doing such is considered to be a result of their bias towards the North American model that posits representative democracy as the only viable form of government for a civilized country and their unwillingness to engage with the historical conditions of the country.

The subsequent article, Venezuela’s Presidential Elections of 2006: Toward 21st Century Socialism? illustrates the many positive markers of social health that have risen with the Chavez administration. Mission Mercal and Mission Rodriguez have decreased poverty, increased school attendance and decreased drop-out rates. Barrio Adentro has allowed for the exponential increase in access to health care and has spread it’s focus onto preventative measures that give the population a better comprehension of how to stay healthy. Mission Robinson I and II have sought to end adult illiteracy and offer those who are interested to finish primary studies. Water Community Boards (Mesas Tecnicas de Agua) have increased the percentage of the population with access to running water from 60% to 90%. Margarita Lopez-Maya and Luis E. Lander don’t simply trot out all the numbers that show the positive trends on the Human Development Index, but also show how within the electoral system itself there has been an increase in democratization. The constitution expanded the powers from the traditional three, Executive, Legislative and Judicial to include Citizen and Electoral. The latter of which American familiar with the working of the electoral college would find interesting due to it’s very progressive nature. The article than analyzes the message composition of the 2006 election and shows how Chavez wins almost unanimously in poor districts and loses in wealthy ones due to his support of increased autonomy to these sectors. Chavez’s speech around this election, which was the first time that he used the phrase 21st century Socialism, is then analyzed. He is shown as showing an admixture of both aggression and deep love for his opponents and describes his vision of 21st Century socialism as “native, indigenous, Christian and Bolivarian.” After the 2006 victory, Chavez then began the process of consolidating his supporters into the PSUV (Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela), one of the “five engines” to move society towards socialism.

Subsequent articles, while eminently worth reading, go into comparative, detailed analysis of his spending policies, the initial capital flight followed by re-investment when arbitrary nationalization was no longer felt to be a threat, the growth of domestic private capital, the projects for increased regional integration, a Bank of the South that counters influence of the IADF and World Bank, Chavez’s disdain for Obama’s lukewarm support of “democracy” in Honduras following the military coup that toppled Manuel elaya, extensive details of the many achievements created by Barrio Adentro, and how despite the at times bombastic rhetoric that government has been sensibly pursuing an international relations policy designed to frustrate the operation of a unipolar global power structure. The book