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.