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